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Burn the Programmer (antipope.org)
377 points by thenomad 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 244 comments

I teach high school math and science, and I fully recognize that most of my students will not end up in math and science-focused careers. So I think pretty carefully about my goals for these students.

One clear purpose in everything I ask students to do: take away the sense of "magic" in technological things.

I just finished teaching a math class, where the final project was a 3d modeling exercise. Students didn't always enjoy the process, but they were deeply satisfied with their work in the end. Most of them will never model anything again in their lives. But we've removed the idea that when they see an amazingly detailed 3d-printed prosthetic limb, that the designer was doing some kind of magic. They know that the designer worked from the same principles they learned, the only real difference is that the designer enjoyed this work enough to stay with it and become highly proficient at it.

These are all students who will not want to burn programmers, but who will instead understand the hard work that goes into well-designed apps and products. They will also know that people who design crappy or harmful products can do much better and much different work.

Someone whose name I no longer remember was a teacher of mine in highschool. Even though I knew how to program and had a nights / summers / weekends job programming I treated the CPU / motherboard as "magic". As if there was this dividing wall between the pure mathematical construct of a software program and the physicality of the bits moving through the motherboard.

The teacher taught us how to use NPN and PNP transistors to create very simple calculators.

Though I never went into hardware, that small demonstration was enough for me to see through the illusion and made it clear to me that the world was generally understandable if you just put in the time.

Even scary magical things like CPUs.

I'm going to have to chime in for the book/course Nand2Tetris - Building a Modern Computer from First Principles (http://nand2tetris.org/) which has been posted back and forth here on HN for quite a few years and is of course where I discovered it as well.

It was really eye opening to me (being a web programmer) to see how you can actually build a real computer with a C-like programming language and compiler just by starting out with simple logic gates. I mean, the damn thing eventually ends up running Tetris! All by essentially combining logic gates for computation and flip-flops for memory. How amazing is that, really?

I used to think the same way about the CPU, even after getting a masters in Computer Science! About a year ago I read the book Code by Charles Petzold and watched some lectures about Computer Science by Robert Sedgewick which really opened up my mind.

I am partway through Code (can't seem to get through some of the heavy combinatorial math just by reading...it's somewhat of a slog), but it oddly enough made me think of coding as even more magical.

We harness mana (electricity) to run it through circuits (runes), and craft spells (code) that generate effects (magic).

Just reading the start of it is humbling because it makes you realize that people had to come up with these principles in the first place, and figure out the initial abstraction layers that let everything else click into place.

Are those lectures in the public domain? If so, could you pls link to them? Thx.

In the case of the Computer Science course from Sedgwick, I have only been able to find it on Safari Books and InformIT (30$) http://www.informit.com/title/9780134493831

If you happen to be a member of ACM, you actually get free access to Safari Books through http://learning.acm.org

I had a very similar experience when I took a processor design class in college. At first in the class we started learning the binary codes for each instruction, which bits were the registers, instruction bits etc. It seemed so pointless at the time. When we finally got to the end and it clicked that those bits were physically turning on and off gates, it blew my mind.

In my class, circa 2001, we were taught about an adder, then used cheap chips in a breadboard with wires and bulbs to show it, then used Logicworks to create a simple version in software. Rinse and repeat for other components, and the final project was to copy and paste those components into a larger logicworks project and hook them up together into a simple 4 bit CPU with a few dozen bytes of RAM. It could understand four instructions if I recall correctly, so very simple programs could run from that RAM.

I don't really remember how to do any of it anymore (but I have no doubt I could research it without much trouble) but it certainly was a good way to demystify a CPU, given you had fully simulated one at the gate level by the end.

My world was opened up when in my college Computer Architecture class I learned the relationship between microcode and an instruction set. It gave me confidence. The final in that class had a question on it where I had to apply the general principles I learned to draw a new conclusion--the first time I'd ever taken a test where the test itself actually taught me something I hadn't fully internalized or learned before. What a feeling--it was like magic.

This is really cool. I had the good luck of having 2 really great math teachers in high school, and seemingly little things like this can really have a lasting impact.

One of them taught me both computer science and statistics, and did an amazing job at both. He went way above and beyond the minimum required curriculum for AP CS, so I basically picked up everything I needed to know to get a job just in that class.

And for stats, this guy did something I'd never actually seen a teacher do before. Over the course of one semester he'd managed to get the entire class of mostly average students to go from having a typical negative attitude towards math to being genuinely interested and capable of critical thinking that most adults I have met never do.

The other teacher taught a variety of math classes, but I had him for pre-calculus. He was really passionate about what he was doing and that rubbed off on everyone. He did an excellent job of relating everything back to real world topics and really seemed to make things click with people in a way that was highly unusual from my perspective.

The difference those two were able to make impressed me so much I almost decided to go into teaching, but I didn't have any means of paying for college. Fortunately I was able to get into software without a degree, in part because of the great work those two did.

This is a great point. I think it is tempting and understandable to, at times, appreciate the "magic" of our profession, but our goal should be able to take away that sense of magic - both in terms of creating programming languages and tools which are more intuitive for human beings, and, as OP says, in terms of education.

There will always be some magic in programming. Unnecessary magic, imho, is just another form of obfuscation.

> Most of them will never model anything again in their lives. But we've removed the idea that when they see an amazingly detailed 3d-printed prosthetic limb, that the designer was doing some kind of magic.

I don't believe in "magic", but I believe there is magic everywhere.

TIL I won a math award in grade 6 and almost failed grade 8. I remembered that the first time I took calculus I scored 39% and the second time I scored 93%.

I learnt a lot from school, but more on my own.

I'm terrible at math and programming, but better at it than most everyone I know. The only people I know who do it better do it professionally, but do it so narrowly they barely know anything at all.

I understand very little in detail, but quite a bit in principle.

I'm uneducated and probably unemployable, but make more than most people I know who are employed, in a field that's been made obsolete (while working less than they do).

I believe strongly in the dignity and simplicty of living that comes from reflection and self-awareness. And that empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of a just society.

I believe we should all know more and do less. That our experiments and play should be confined to safe spaces and have as few repercussions as possible. That the public acts we willingly make should be considered and measured.

I am hungry now, I will eat.

Considering how many programming abstractions most programmers work above now, I'd say it's more like magic now then ever before. Draw the circle (add the boiler plate code), recite the words (dig up the proper API method), perform the gestures (compile with certain flags) and your spell (desktop app) will work. If you don't, it'll do nothing or worse, blow up in your face.

As a side note, if anyone's interested in looking a bit more into "programming as magic" there's a great book series called The Wizardry series about programmers being transported into a fantasy realm where magic works similarly to a programming language. The main character ends up writing a compiler based off (IIRC) APL and revolutionizes magic. The first book is called Wizard's Bane and it's light and fun reading.

> As a side note, if anyone's interested in looking a bit more into "programming as magic" there's a great book series called The Wizardry

If you like that kind of thing and you enjoy/don't mind anime, there's also the serie Knight’s & Magic. It is about a programmer being reborn in a world where people wield big "golem" armors. The protagonist then proceed to make his own version, completly disregarding the philosophy of that world. Thinking of those golems as nothing more than machines and using magic as nothing more than "inputs/outputs" for those machines and the world.


"A genius programmer and hardcore robot otaku is reborn into a world of knights and magic, where huge robots called Silhouette Knights roar across the land! Now reborn as Ernesti Echevalier, he uses his vast knowledge of machines and programming talents to begin to make his ultimate robot. But his actions have unexpected results...?! The dreams of a robot otaku will change the world!"

Ah, K&M. Lots of potential, many fun moments, but it's far from rationalist fiction. Still, if you ever need wish fulfillment that the time you spend at work beating down technical debt could instead allow you to fight monsters and cast spells leveraging the mana pool of a giant robot, it's a fun read/watch.

From an unofficial (and somewhat grammatically atrocious) English translation of the original novel [0]:

> Normally, Eru would have given up at this stage and would have chosen a more practical spell. But he knew how to solve the problem because of his unique skills ― programming concept. He had experience in designing and coding software to handle multiple variables. That's why he skipped the beginner magic phase and jumped straight into the 'modified magic' phase. Reviewing the structure of the physical boost script, Eru compressed the structure to minimise the number of variables, creating subscripts that would automatically extract the status of the body. After compiling it, he just needed to design the user interface to make it easier to control, so as to lessen the burden.

> Complicated projects like the improvement of scripts was not something that could be done easily by anyone. Eru, however, was not aware of this, completing the improvement shortly, and the patch was a big enhancement. But even so, it was still difficult to control magic that strained the mind heavily. But with his extraordinary processing ability, it was not much. No one realised that a historical revolution had occurred, but for Eru, this was just a small step in his journey.

[0] http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://...

I also really loved the episode of "In Another World With My Smartphone" where the character aquires the spell "program" which lets a caster enchant a physical object with a command.

The regular wizards use it to, let's say, make a door open when someone says "open" or other minor one-step commands.

The protagonist, a modern human stuck in a magical world, uses it differently. He creates sequences with it. He scripts complex programs.

[Minor Spoiler] As an example, he ends up creating a magical pistol. When the users speak "reload", the pistol (which the character imbued with a few spells using "enchant") casts a detection spell to finds the closest bullets. If bullets are found, the pistol then casts the spell "aports" on it. The bullets are teleported into the chamber of the pistol. He uses the same concept but with transmogrification enchantments to add voice commands such as "sword mode" or "pistol mode" that transform the pistol into a sword and vice-versa.

I highly recommend reading the light-novel translations of "In Another World With My Smartphone" as well! You can buy them on Amazon Kindle, or you can subscribe to read the pre-prints at http://j-novel.club/.

I was a little disappointed that a 600+ year-old fairy didn't remember to properly set conditionals, though. :D

> it's far from rationalist fiction

Is that bad? Like any didactic subtype of the genre, rationalist fiction often struggles to succeed in both of the goals set for it; the only example I've as yet found enjoyable - and extremely so! I strongly recommend it - is Unsong by Scott Alexander, also of Slate Star Codex.

Not purely rational you have parahumans where most protagonists' acts have some logic behind it. Not a lot of evil people just because they're evil, and not a lot of pure heroes either.

https://parahumans.wordpress.com/ if you want something to read for next month(s).

And in case anyone isn’t aware, the sequel started yesterday at https://www.parahumans.net !

Seconding Unsong. The end felt kind of cheap to me, but the journey was absolutely worth it.

Agree on both counts.

How else would you have it end?

Fair question. I could not have done better. But still.

Unsong is not exactly rational fiction. The author itself claims it isn't (some people claim it is despite this fact, though).

I can see both sides of that argument, and I'd be lying to say I didn't consider Unsong rationalist fiction at least partly as an attempt to redeem the genre in my own estimation.

Authors aren't reliable narrators of their work.

>Ah, K&M. Lots of potential, many fun moments, but it's far from rationalist fiction.

Hasn't that gone out of style with Zola?

I did see that while browsing newer shows the other day but I guess I didn't see the programming part and thought it was too generic to watch. I'll have to give it another look.

Thanks for the recommendation!

It's yet another take on the "regular modern human gets teleported into a magical world and becomes super strong because he has knowledge" trope that is all over the place in recent animes.

That being said, it's an interesting point of view. The character goes so far as taking personal a fight against a "golem plane" solely because he fears that the invention of planes will means that this world, like ours, won't have mechas. He doesn't have a care in the world but to use magic as a means to program mechas and completely disregards the fact that magic should be exciting in itself.

I really loved the pacing of Knights and Magic, but the fact that the MC was a programmer in a past life is only relevant for maybe 3 episodes.

I followed this link and I have watched a few episodes. Can't get over the first episode intro. Developers life summed up in 30 seconds.

I just watched the whole thing based on this post. 3/5. Not really worth the 5 hours, but it was alright. The premise was neat.

I felt exactly the same while watching it. Neat promise and entertaining. Something you can binge and enjoy without thinking too much. 3/5 is a nice rating when you compare to some of this season's anime series. There are a lot of show that I would rate 0/5 or even -1/5.

The books Daemon/Freedom by Daniel Suarez was pretty entertaining on that front. The idea that people could literally affect the world around them via "magic spells" which mapped aliases of a invented language that would be picked up by microphones and then executed on computers.

There is a section that muses about the future of humanity and how in the near future, these would literally seem like magic to anyone who doens't have technical know how, and for all intents and purposes, it was.

In the Quantum Thief (actually one of its sequels) by Hannu Rajaniemi, there are Secret Names that perform magic; one of them was 'Emergency Decompression Protection' and produced a shield around the incanter.

Smartcoral's user interface is also pretty similar, though, and that shows up in Quantum Thief proper. :)

With always listening assistants, we're practically there with Google and Alexa. We just need cooler things to interact with than communication and divination (checking the weather) "spells."

As soon as we get some sort of grey goo with an API like in Big Hero 6 or wrist mounted fireball/lightning generators we're in business.

"hocus pocus fe fi fo fum, play Taylor Swift's latest album"

This is exactly the reason I despise Spring with a deep and abiding passion.

"Just add this dependency, and add these annotations to your class, and it will all Just Work."

"But...what do those annotations actually do?"

"Stop asking so many questions!"

I mean, I know the answers are out there, it's open source after all. But so much of it seems deliberately designed to obfuscate the flow of execution and make reasoning about the code as difficult as possible.

This phenomenon came to a head with J2EE. The original spec was designed apparently by people who did not know the 8 fallacies of distributed computing. It also coevolved with XML, and I think the entire experience colors the configuration as code philosophy in a bad, or even sinister, light.

When I see people design systems where, when they break, the only way to diagnose the problem is to do a code review, (not read the logs, or fire up a debugger), I wonder how they got along in their education without understanding the importance of debuggers, or why they hate their fellow programmers so much.

Spring comes out of a book that tried to reject the arcane nature of J2EE. I wonder sometimes if Mr Johnson recognizes hay the Beast he created is just as bad as the one he slayed. And how well he sleeps at night.

It got so bad they made a mini version of Spring, and even that is very declarative, and nearly impossible to explore.

When I'm really disturbed by how something actually works, my approach is to try to implement something similar myself. Object oriented C (structs with function pointers) long ago gave me some insights including why Python has an explicit 'self' for everything. There's a similar exercise you can do in C to better understand the prototype chaining way of doing OOP. Have you tried to make a simple version of e.g. @Autowire that is still capable enough to let a Java app of many modules have one module only depend on an API module and not the implementation module with everything just working without explicit injection? Sounds interesting to me, I bet that would be more enlightening than a summary page, or at least make the summary page more understandable...

"without explicit injection?"

In many, many applications explicit injection works just fine and is exactly what you want. But once you say "I am going to write a Spring Boot application", you are pretty much stuck with a big part of your application logic stuck in annotations, even when there is very little benefit over explicit code.

That's exactly how I felt about Ruby on Rails.

It's also why I prefer more "straightforward" libraries such as Tornado or CherryPy.

Wait, that's contrasting to other Python libraries that use the Rails/Spring magic? Which ones?

Django for example has a lot of magic.

A lot of the development process consists of adding fields with particular names to classes that have a long inheritance chain of their own, and it's not trivial at all to understand what all of your options are and how they work behind the scenes.

Hm I figured Django may be guilty of that. FWIW I learned web apps on RoR but my first job was Django. Django (or at least, apps in practice) was definitely less magic than Rails, although I see what you mean about a lot of the config being less transparent than one might like. I always have to eg hit SO to figure out how to add something to the admin since the model for how it works is not transparent.

I’ll definitely check out Tornado and the others for how they compare.

Currently it's my feeling about Kubernetes. Yeah not coding, but the same feeling.

I agree with annotations like this making it harder to reason about control flow, but I don't really get the consternation about "what do these annotations do?" so much. You can go read their documentation or source yourself to answer that question. How is that different than anything else? Same thing with "rails magic": yes, it sucks that you can't grep for method definitions, but you can go peruse the has_many method implementation to see what it does!

This really isn't too difficult to do, but it is a time sink I'd rather not have to deal with. With Spring in particular there's a huge amount of complexity so it can take a bit of time to determine exactly what's going on. Whereas with something like Go, I generally have full control over my applications control flow and if I need to look at a libraries source it's typically very straightforward and to the point.

"I agree with annotations like this making it harder to reason about control flow"

That is precisely my consternation. Much, much easier to reason about abstractions in the core Java language, like methods and objects, then to discover what code is being injected by an annotation. Java has outstanding IDEs that excel at navigating, analyzing, and debugging Java code, but putting so much logic in annotations is almost like you are trying to deliberately keep much of the code secret from the IDE.

Yeah. In principle, IDEs could show you what an annotation is doing, but at least in my experience that aren't particularly good at this.

I generally agree, but it's not entirely Spring's fault. The underlying APIs they're using are awful. If I were doing anything Java EE based, I'd still prefer to be using Spring Boot even with it's warts. It might be a framework for a framework (Spring MVC) for another framework(Java EE)...but it's still less of a pain than dealing with the underlying frameworks directly.

This is exactly the reason I despise Spring with a deep and abiding passion.

It's interesting you took the time to post this. As the sibling to this comment indicate, there's a lot of 'magic' in many languages and frameworks. not just Spring. You don't off an example of a tech stack you do favor so one can only guess.

I will say that when I have encountered developers and teams who also disdain otherwise popular frameworks, they sometimes choose to roll their own instead of buckling down and learning said framework. Invariably they end up with a partial implementation of what they didn't understand, that is bug ridden, ill performing, and just plain bad.

There's a lot of good stuff in Spring (and EJB, and rails, and ...) the onus is on us, as professionals to learn it and use it where and when it's appropriate.

"You don't off an example of a tech stack you do favor so one can only guess."

I think annotations are used many times in Java where abstractions like first class functions would be used in other languages.

I also find Lisp macros easier to reason about. "This compile time source code expands to this run time source code, which executes like so."

Perhaps surprisingly, I even find Ruby magic easier to reason about. "This method causes these three other methods to be defined to do x, y, z." It can get confusing, and final behavior highly dependent on the order in which the code executes, but I still feel like I have a mental model of how everything executes.

With annotations, depends on the code processing the annotations. You could have different code doing different thing with the exact same annotations. Your IDE can take you to the annotation declaration, but not directly to the code the annotation causes to execute. In the debugger, you can see the code in the call stack that was generated, but no link back to what annotation caused it to be generated.

It all just feels more like memorizing spells at Hogwarts, and less like an engineering process.

Spring desperately needed some remote interfaces to the engine to let external debuggers attach & tell you what was what. It keeps track of all this data, & you can find out what's in the various object containers if you ask really nicely with a lot of code. If this had a GUI, I think it would be an enormously sophisticated & elegant way of dealing with systems. Alas now it's a fright.

That's exactly how I feel about express middleware...

I mean... Usually you could implement a simple dependency yourself pretty trivially, for the most common case. But will your implementation be as tested and cover your user base as well as the Generally Accepted dependency implementation that has a million monthly downloads?

Diane Duane's Young Wizards series is more "magic as programming" but it's also quite good if you like stuff that's fairly YA pitched. It bridges the gap between "magic is deeply mysterious and unknowable" and "with the right set of words and invocations you can teleport" in an unusually deft way. Magic uses a more declarative language than an imperative one, but it's composed in much the same way as you might compose a program.

A magic Apple II makes an appearance, if I'm remembering correctly...

Aren't they all, a bit?

As long as we're recommending things, I'm tossing "Off To Be The Wizard" into the pool. Magic is done by modifying a secret file that modifies the world; you can create macros that modify it for you, etc., etc. Shenanigans ensue.


Forth, I believe it was, rather than APL, and specifically for the simple semantics and quick composition of a stack-based language. I recall being impressed with the author's rather detailed, but still likely accessible to non-wizards, description of the decision process and its outcome.

My favorite bit was summoning the Interpreter from Starting Forth -- you could recognize him from the description before it was explained. I mean, if you've read Starting Forth already.

As a side note, if anyone's interested in looking a bit more into "programming as magic" there's a great book series called The Wizardry series about programmers being transported into a fantasy realm where magic works similarly to a programming language.

Sounds a lot like the "Magic 2.0" series by Scott Meyer.


In that world, "magic" is very much a direct result of programming. I've read the first two books in the series and enjoyed them a lot. For anybody whose into that sor of thing, I recommend this series highly.

Just finished the third book. So far 1 and 2 (which takes place in Atlantis which may have borrowed heavily from Apple's design philosophy) are my favorites.

They definitely focus more on the programming nuance. It's also cool how they introduce technology and interfaces from different periods of computing due to the time traveling aspect.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality also explores that topic a bit.

Better to read the review/summary as HPatMoR is extremely long and really more of an Ender's Game fanfic than an exploration of magic by rational means. (It does happen briefly but is quickly forgotten.) http://danluu.com/su3su2u1/hpmor/#bad-plotting

>At the start of the story he has a legitimate positive agenda--he wants to use science to uncover the secrets of magic. As the story develops, however, he completely loses sight of that goal, and he instead becomes just a passenger in the plot--he competes in Quirrell’s games and goes through school like any other student. When Voldemort starts including Hariezer in his plot, Hariezer floats along in a completely reactive way,etc.

>Not until spoiler dies, near the end of the story, does Hariezer pick up a positive goal again (ending death) and he does absolutely nothing to achieve it

I gather you didn't like HPMoR, like the author of the review? Here's my advice: do not read that review, even the introduction is full of spoilers.

I personally loved HPMoR, even more so than the original series. I also disagree with most of the review, either factually (I believe most of the science is sound), or because I have a different interpretation (how Harry lacking agency is even a problem?).

Correct. (and good point about spoilers) :) I just had high hopes for a story of scientific inquiry into magic. (Still do) Switched from source to review after it became clear that the story was more of a power fantasy/soapbox for the author.

> If you don't, it'll do nothing or worse, blow up in your face.

I assume I am not the only one who destroyed at least some amount of his personal data doing computer magic [1]. This would be analogous to a spell going wrong, burning the witches' hand or something similar.

[1] Be it an incorrect incantation of rm, or just a poorly aimed flick with the pixie pointer.

I am showing my age here. I destroyed a CRT monitor once when I used the wrong incantation for xorg.

Whoa, what? I'd be curious to hear more about that... How could some software config harm a display? Incorrect sync rates or something? ...and yeah, I am old enough to have used CRT displays for many years of my life, just never seen one get damaged like that! :)

Used to be, you configured X for your monitor and video card by editing a config file that specified the assorted timings and so forth. Yes, you could make your monitor very unhappy with the wrong settings.

This is probably the most useful thing ESR ever wrote: http://en.tldp.org/HOWTO/XFree86-Video-Timings-HOWTO/

My sympathies. I remember the feeling in my gut I got when I had to manipulate XFree86 (what distros shipped with when I had to do this the last time) and worrying that I'd lose my one and only monitor, but it never happened to me.

I remember that thunk.

Similarly, the Ra story on qntm.org has magic be well-defined to the point of having an intentionally boring college lecture, with the magic spells being both consistent and recognizable. The author did a writeup of some of how the language is structured.

I feel disgust for programming domains where I have to use a lot of boilerplate. This is simply because... I can't remember arbitrary bits of information well. I memorize much better if it's something connected by logic.

The presence of large amounts of boilerplate signals an opportunity for abstraction wins.

If you like this kind of stories and don't mind a work in progress you whould try https://www.reddit.com/r/HFY/comments/61ya08/oh_this_has_not... where a nerd ends up in a fantasy world.

Obligatory reference to Vernor Vinge's Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky that explores programmer archeologists or programmer at arms.

As I recall (it's been years) it was based on Forth because a stack based postfix language is easy to implement. It can be parsed and executed in a single sequential pass.

Right it was Forth! I remember reading that got me interested in stack-based programming languages. Maybe it was in a later book he wrote something based off APL.

I recall enjoying that series. Correct me if I'm wrong, but at some point he brings a friend over to his world and gets made fun of for programming magic in Forth.

That sounds neat. Target age?

Another analogy that I can't shake off is True Name and search engines.

Since the dawn of time folk tales placed emphasis on true name of people and objects. Knowing the true name grants one power over something or someone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_name

Knowing the true name of someone lets you put it in a search engine and find out about him/her. There are some sleazy smartphone apps which let you do even more. Knowing the name of the problem lets you search for the algorithm. Certain problems become trivial if you can name them and find an already known solution.

"True Name" is what I'm reminded of most when I try to invoke tech support. Recently my ISP upgraded me to fiber and gave me a ... router. I would put some adjectives there, but I want to keep this post civil. Needless to say, I want to do some more advanced things with this device like enable restricted UPnP, maybe run some DNS-level ad blockers, port forward, etc. After some arguing with tech support I couldn't get them to divulge the password and other administration details, so I gave up and set up my own router right after it to do at least some of the things I want.

Recently however, I saw an offhand comment in a thread about this ISP, where the person mentioned the words "please bridge port 1 on my router". Well that sounds like exactly the thing I would want, but didn't think to ask for and the tech support person didn't think to offer me. Sure enough, as soon as I spoke the magic words to tech support, the router became a bridge and my own device is acting as the gateway.

The big difference between tech support and programming is that programming usually comes with a manual, while with tech support, you have to learn the True Names of the actions you want performed from some wise master who heard them from some other wise master, who... and so on.

The big difference between tech support and programming is that programming usually comes with a manual, while with tech support, you have to learn the True Names of the actions you want performed from some wise master who heard them from some other wise master, who... and so on.

Actually this is true of most bureaucracies: banks, governments, large companies, academia, etc.

As always, there is an XKCD about that ;-)


Social security numbers occupy a similar place in American society; you gain additional power for every Former Address of Residence you know, and the True Name of your mother - the one she was known by before marriage - unlocks further powers yet.

>Since the dawn of time folk tales placed emphasis on true name of people and objects. Knowing the true name grants one power over something or someone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_name

Ha, interesting. I've read a few novels in which they say that people of some tribes think that is so. And (just guessing here) that may be why in some tribes, a person can have more than one name. I don't mean name as in First_name Last_name (which are treated as a single composite name), but as in Name1, Name2, ..., i.e. multiple different separate names. Also, the approach taken to giving names to people, in certain tribes or communities, is interesting, and varies by tribe.

Even better, sometimes I wonder if history is not going in circles. Maybe so much fuss is made about True Names because it's echoes of a long dead civilization which already had computers and search engines ? Atlantis ? Quetzalcoatl ? Meroe ? Hyperborea ? Mu ? Lyonesse ? Dogons ?

You don't have to have computers to have amazing record keeping combined with shitty security. Egypt under the rule of the Romans was run with a ridiculously tight ship because they wanted to extract tax revenue from every single person in the country. Same with China around the same period.

Would we not find archaeological evidence of these technologies? Plastic tends to stick around for a long time.

I was only half-serious about it. My hobbies include SF and fantasy. It's an intriguing idea for a setting.

No one mentioned Vinge!?

> True Names is a 1981 science fiction novella by Vernor Vinge, considered a seminal work of the cyberpunk genre. It is one of the earliest stories to present a fully fleshed-out concept of cyberspace, which would later be central to cyberpunk. The story also contains elements of transhumanism, anarchism, and even hints about The Singularity.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Names

As true names are unique (are they?), they seem more like debug console credentials, where you can ultimately control or threat the existence of named being.

True Names figure prominently in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series.


In the anime Death Note, `True Name` is needed to perform the "ritual".

It makes me wonder if there are any realms of wizardry where the highest ranking wizards spend all their time on management skills and never get to practice their magic.

"Oh, these days I just review a lot of spell-design scrolls and mentor junior acolytes. Magic is more of a people business, you know."

The senior staff at Unseen University in Pratchett's Discworld series are a lot like this.

Well, it depends on if you're talking early series or late series. Early series, the wizards were college academia taken to absurdist violent extremes, to the point of assassinating each other to try and get tenure slots. Most of that got quietly dropped over time to make them more likeable.

...that's an option?

(Ex-academic here.)

Trust me, you don't want to go down that path. Spend all that time memorizing some complicated spell, use it once, and poof, you've completely forgotten it.

Maybe, but its more likely that majority of higher ranking wizards would focus on growing their sheep herding business. :)


And this is why we can't have nice things. Like magic

Aes Sedai in Wheel of Time? "Well, I could destroy the world, but I'm too busy playing politics with all these other women."

Good one. Brought back a lot of Wheel of Time memories ... I just wish I had time to re-read the entire series ... never even finished it.

The last three books were written by Brandon Sanderson. They were so good. I wish we could keep the first 2-3 books from Robert Jordan and have Brandon Sanderson rewrite all of the middle books up to his last 3 books. It would really improve the series. I'm loving Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series right now. The third one is coming out in a few days.

Given what I remember of the middle books, it would be less about rewriting them all and more writing one book to replace them all. Could probably just be done by selectively removing chapters, similar to the fan edits of the Hobbit movies.

I hate to say this, but it actually got better when Robert Jordan died. He lost control of the series around book 6 and just started meandering, and books 7-10 aren't really worth reading. He picked up the pace again slightly with book 11. Then the Sanderson books (12-14) are excellent; he managed to tie up most of the loose ends, the characters basically read like old Robert Jordan, and the pacing moves well (even a little quickly at times).

Good to know. I stopped at book 7 I believe ... and I see what you are saying, somehow the story was plodding along in the later books - I was still enjoying myself, but I definitely wouldn't have complained if all the cruft was cut out.

Charles Stross's novels parallel this, unsurprisingly. Bob doesn't do much fieldwork anymore, and rarely even gets to light up a Hand of Glory.

Not in the latest ones spoiler alert hes now a bit dangerous to use in case he loses it and kills a few K people by accident.

Sure, but plot-wise, that's sort of a recent development. (Well, as of the end of Rhesus Chart, anyway.)

Most of the Discworld magic, really. Moreso the witches than the wizards, the wizards are more concerned with the next meal.

Do you really want a ritual to summon sex crazed beings? You may want to be a little more specific there.

Djinns are the BOFH of the magic world.

This http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/09/ars-longa-vita-brevis/ might be relevant to your interests.


You know, us programmers like to refer to ourselves as wizards but I really wonder if non-programmers think the same or is it just like any other profession they're not knowledgeable of? I don't know anything about chemical engineering but I've never considered chemical engineers to be magical.

I do like thinking of myself as a wizard, though.

I felt that wizard thing when I was just starting out, for most of my career though, i've thought an apt analogy is tradesman. eg. carpenter or metalworker.

We get commissioned to build something that does X. Then we design and build it. With experience we develop our own tools / practices and a familiarity with our materials. Experienced masters might experiment and develop completely novel things or masterworks. Sometimes many of us will be commissioned together to build something really big or challenging.

I think most people look at skilled construction contractors and assume they could be just as good with a very small amount of study and practice. People see us as having a completely alien ability that they intrinsically lack. That makes us like Harry Potter wizards, people with an inborn gift that makes us capable of learning things that are beyond the reach of normal people. The difference between us and wizards is that everybody would love to be a wizard, but they look at us and think, "Thank god there are people who enjoy that stuff." If you knew a wizard you'd probably constantly wish you could do what he could do. I think the only time people wish they could do what I do is when they're trying to get their printer to work.

That's quite true. When you say you're a plumber, people can at least ask half-assed questions or provide a story when they were doing that themselves. When you say you're a programmer, the conversation usually ends with "Oh.". They have literally no clue how to get into the area.

How many of you have girlfriends who are genuinely interested in your craft and regularly talk with you about it ? Say, once per week. But if you're a photographer, that's instantly understandable to anyone. Anyone can chime in.

This reminds me of the time when Charlie Chaplin said to his friend Albert Einstein: "People like me because everyone understands me. People like you because no one understands you."

I had a girlfriend with a CS degree from Princeton. She didn’t care much about code, and didn’t want to talk about it.

Another had an MIS degree. She loved my enthusiasm, but didn’t care much about the content.

Another was a photographer with a tremendous amount of curiosity about everything. She listened raptly for hours at a time to every word I said about every low-level or mathy thing. She took it all in and asked great questions. Then she learned programming and became a software project manager.

I believe the biggest factor in the difference in interest was the “cares about people” vs “cares about phenomena” spectrum.

In general, though, I would never even bring up the topic with friends or girlfriends.

Quite a lot of times, actually. It helps to work in gamedev, but I think a lot of developers can have interesting and meaningful conversations with outsiders about their work if they focus on the domain, things that they are building and problems they're solving, not the inner workings of languages and frameworks.

What if you write kernels or compilers for a living? Talking about a business domain is cheating :D

If you can't make a race condition in a device driver into an interesting story, you need to work on your story telling :)

And compilers are fascinating - you are, essentially, formalizing the act of translating between languages. Something anybody who speaks more than one language can understand.

You probably can't translate everything you do into a great story, but the basics of your field should be straightforward.

I got to answer the question with "I write file system performance benchmarks" once. Got looked at like I said I played with spleens for a living.

I love talking to my partner, even though she's got an MBA (and works as an artist. Long story :)

It helps me improve my communication and teaching skills. It's fun, because it highlights the parts I don't clearly understand as well. She cares about it because it's so fundamentally different from anything she does, it's an entirely different world. (Vice versa, too. She's given me beautiful explanations on color theory, for example)

Yes, it requires work, from both sides. But for me personally - if your partner doesn't care enough to ask (or you don't care enough to explain), why have a relationship in the first place?

(Sidebar: s/girlfriend/partner/g, please.)

I think plumber is more apt: We take shit and send it places so people don't have to think about it.

A lot of programming work being done today is information plumbing. Creating pipes that move information from one place to another. Regulating and monitoring information flow rates. Unclogging pipes that are backed up.

The difference is that plumbing is tangible. You can touch the pipes and imagine what's inside them.

IT is intangible.

You can touch a server and a network cable, but their work is utterly mysterious and unintuitive compared to a domestic water pipe.

Which is why IT seems like magic, but plumbing, carpentry, and car maintenance don't.

I think the craft aspect is somewhat romanticized and that much of programming work is more like a kind of accounting or some other clerical bureaucratic trade.

In my experience, that depends entirely on your role.

I've found that my place is within a team of 5<x<20 - it's large enough that I can work on "meta" stuff like workflow improvements and refactoring existing functionality to make it generically applicable where appropriate, but small enough that my contributions are not lost in the noise and I can see the impact I'm having on the team's overall velocity.

If all I were doing every day was implementing yet another CRUD form, then I would feel the same way you've described.

You’ve just reminded me of a line from one of the Wicca books I read as a teen. The whole coven size <= 13 thing was down to how big teams can get before people tread on each other’s metaphorical feet.

Covens of >13 are dealt with a great deal in Sterling's "Emberverse" series...

Surely there are lower and higher levels of abstraction and impact in accounting too—and a lot of repetitive drudgery in carpentry and other crafts.

Maybe you've been at it longer than me.. and as one gets more experienced/jaded ones analogies become less romantic.. Wizard!, tradesman, garbageman, bureaucrat... I hope it doesnt get down to politician!!

Also software is a huge field and where u work in it probably has an effect. I never do internety stuff for example, I make computer games.

> I hope it doesnt get down to politician!!

Given how political certain projects have become, i dunno...

I'm actually kind of romantically impressed by accountants and actuaries!

Similarly, I've found that most of the more effective programmers that I know personally tend to have backgrounds in trades, whether that is carpentry, building construction, mechanical tinkering, etc. Odd anecdote, I know, but perhaps it has something to do with a similar style of big-picture systems-thinking, combined with a need for attention-to-detail.

I used to work construction and a lot of the concepts translate well to software. You learn pretty quick that if you half ass something early in the build it'll come back to bite you later (didn't place your studs 16 inches apart? Enjoy marking them all out so you can put up drywall).

The tools are different but the ideas are the same.

I used to be an architect, worked at it for a good few years, and only got into programming when I was approaching my 30's. Ive since found that my architecture experience gives me a huge advantage over my peers when it comes software architecture and project management.

Architecture was my other potential major in college. Took drafting classes in high school and everything. I think there is definitely something to the mindset correlation.

I have this idea to write an article on how architecture and general design was taught to me. I think software dev education could benefit from that approach. We were never told how to design, it was almost all studio work. We would be given a site and a brief and then off we go and design a building. We could get advice from our lecturers + also there were regular 'crits' where you have to put your work up on the wall in front of everyone and give a brief presentation, then the lecturers and everyone is free to critique it. It takes a year or two or three, but going through this over and over you do eventually develop your own design methods.

If you want to impress people as a programmer, I think it helps to have imagination and side projects. Visual programming is nice, too (like SVG).

My experience has been that what we consider easy or impressive has very little in common with what others find trivial or impressive.

For example, soon after I got my degree I was making browser based games, and the artist I was working with was really impressed with the particle effect fireworks I’d added to the highscores table out of boredom and was expecting to be told to remove.

And, on the other hand, a real time perlin noise warp tunnel I added to a later game was described as an embarrassing glitch that the boss thought looked like a bug rather than a deliberate effect. (And, unlike the fireworks, had actually been a requested feature).

I remember a project when I was a bit younger and naive, where we had a 3d view of the world, and my job was to implement the display of the sky. So I went off and dug into the research and literature and ended up with a nice efficient C++/OpenGL implementation of [1], including sunrise and sunset effects and haze. Also added night with a realistic ephemeris containing the moon in the correct position and phase and the top 500 or so brightest stars.

The feedback was all negative. The boss and the designers basically said, "Just make it blue."

A couple episodes like that help make you sufficiently jaded and cynical, but also teach you pay attention to the requirements and not to go overboard.

1: https://www.cs.utah.edu/~shirley/papers/sunsky/sunsky.pdf

Hah! Now you’ve reminded me how they hated my Ken Burns effect but loved the accidental posterisation from the (RLE) image compressor that was only there because of a severe download size limit and (something something possibly NDA so self-censoring just in case).

> I do like thinking of myself as a wizard, though.

This doesn't address your first paragraph, but I wanted to comment on this.

I identify as a hacker. The terms "wizard", "incantation", etc are fairly ingrained in our culture. But if I do something and someone refers to it as "magic", it actually makes me uncomfortable; it means that they don't understand what I did or how I did it, and rather than trying to understand it, they dismiss it as something magical. This might sometimes be because they have better things to do at that moment than consider what I did---which is fine. But comparing it as magic still rubs me the wrong way. I don't do magic: everything I do is explainable, and I can explain it to you if you ask.

I used to practice magic when I was much younger---I was an illusionist for a couple years. I was pretty good at it. I did street magic, mentalism, and various other things that seemed impossible or even supernatural/metaphysical. Magic. I still do some tricks I remember for my kids. But whenever they think that it's real---whenever _anyone_ thinks that it might be real---I make sure that they understand that it is an illusion. A trick. A hack, if you will. With my kids, I show them how it's done. And they still love it.

The article shows a regular expression and calls it a "magical incantation". It looks opaque, but it can be understood. The language can be learned. You can format it in a sane manner and dissect it. (Displaying a regex that complicated on one line is a disservice to others, with the intent of making it look opaque. It's like removing all whitespace and newlines from your code or writing complicated one-liners and saying "look, it's magic".) It isn't a magical incantation.

> if I do something and someone refers to it as "magic", it actually makes me uncomfortable; it means that they don't understand what I did or how I did it

It occurs to me that the first steps I take in most new-to-me established projects are basically magic - I'm looking for specific shell commands that the other dev(s) use to perform certain actions: build, run, test, deploy, etc. What's more, there are often undocumented environment dependencies - env vars that need to be set, certain executables that must be installed on the dev's system and in the path, etc.

> It looks opaque, but it can be understood.

I don't think "magic" in this sense means "cannot be understood" - only that it's incomprehensible at some point, and it's performed without understanding to achieve the desired result.

> It occurs to me that the first steps I take in most new-to-me established projects are basically magic - I'm looking for specific shell commands that the other dev(s) use to perform certain actions: build, run, test, deploy, etc. What's more, there are often undocumented environment dependencies - env vars that need to be set, certain executables that must be installed on the dev's system and in the path, etc.

I fully agree with this. In fact, I've reified it into a pattern I use to learn new things: Copy, Paste, Break, Fix. Start with copying and pasting, to make sure I know what happens ("My environment is broken! Their code is broken! I've found an ancient tutorial and the example is broken!") then, once I know it's good, break it somehow, and fix it. Then I make changes to the example, fix what breaks there, and then iterate until I've gotten a good end result.

I have actually quite the opposite point of view. I actually aim for the things I build to feel/be magical. Yes everything is still explainable but usually the system is sufficiently complex that even as the creator you can feel overwhelmed. Recently I've built a small project (I've made a show HN yesterday which btw didn't get any attention) which felt quite magical and futuristic : A remotely controlled robot which displays some deep art. When novice people interacted with it, they felt a bit of the magic of technology, just like wielding a wand, it responded instantly to their will. I enjoy creating things which may have unanticipated effects. Recently, I have been interested by the theory of complex systems and in the way it is similar to real magic, as opposed to the magic you describe as an illusion.

I think the reason for this level of abstraction isn't just due to the difficulty in understanding what we do, but rather the _intangibility_ of what we do. When we talk about magic, we describe a system that is intangible to the uncultured. While everyone is capable of seeing the result, the non-magically adept are incapable of seeing the 'systems' that magic is based on (ie the "flow of mana" or the "rewriting of logic"). The same can be said about programming. Everyone is able to use the products and results we put out, but to understand the "process" is something else entirely.

When an engineer makes something, they are making a _physical_ object by essentially designing and putting _physical_ parts together. Obviously, there's a LOT of math, simulations and design principles that they do as well, but the layman doesn't need to know that - they just see someone who creates parts to build bigger things. A doctor uses his tools and knowledge to _physically_ manipulate the body and fixes physical problems in the body. No layman will ever perform a heart transplant, but they can understand the concept of taking another heart, moving it and connecting the blood vessels and nerve. What does a programmer do? We put together a line of text that somehow represent electricity that is somehow filtered through microscopic parts, resulting in a machine capable of emulating human speech? What?

And now we're getting into quantum computing and cryptocurrency - things that require a massive wealth of knowledge across many fields to fully grasp, and also neural networks and machine learning - things that programmers understand the intended behavior of, but is impossible to perfectly understand their oftentimes random-seeming behavior. It's not a stretch to say that we're reaching a point in time where technology has essentially become like magic.

> I really wonder if non-programmers think the same or is it just like any other profession they're not knowledgeable of?

There is a large difference between competence and ignorance. They're qualitatively different, and different in each field.

e.g. programmers do magic things like read the error messages on the screen. Non-programmers not only don't do that, they can't comprehend why it's necessary. (Without exaggerating too much)

The same applies for mechanics, carpenters, etc. I've seen good people work, and they do things that I just don't get. I'm not sure any amount of training will result in the same intuitive understanding.

It's why I went into programming, and not anything else...

> e.g. programmers do magic things like read the error messages on the screen. Non-programmers not only don't do that, they can't comprehend why it's necessary. (Without exaggerating too much)

More than once it has crossed my mind that it would be worthwhile to build custom error message dialogs that can't be closed for at least 30 seconds (maybe with a secret override) for some areas of our products. The number of times I've been on a support screenshare with customers where they try to connect to some external service, and it fails, and they instantly dismiss the prompt that would tell them exactly why it failed, if they would just read it, is maddening. At least that kind of a built-in delay would give me time to fire up the snipping tool and grab a screenshot from my end...

Why not just write to an error log? You could even have some button to send it to you or something.

Oh, we do that too... It's a struggle to get people to actually send those to us, for some reason, or even just open them up. Usually this kind of thing occurs with initial installation, and we're typically installing into some location that is firewalled to hell and gone, so we can't depend on being able to access anything even within their own LAN, let alone the outside internet.

Enterprise Windows software is so much fun.

Every normal person I know in real life thinks my code is wizardry. In fact the only people I ever, ever catch trying to pass off programming as just another profession, are programmers.

I wrote code for 8 years before encountering another programmer. During that time, I could barely believe that more than a handful of people in the world could possibly be navigating this rabbit hole effectively. It’s too complex and abstract - how would two people even communicate about it?

Turns out I was wrong about the first part, but a little too right about the second part. Even mathematicians find more agreement about what is true than programmers do.

It depends on what those "wizards" do. If it's just making some formula in spreadsheet work, it's not too awesome. If it's stopping time[1], that might be more "magical".

[1] https://hackaday.com/2017/11/09/stop-motion-with-the-time-gl...

"it's not too awesome"

Maybe if you had seen some of the eldritch devious monstrosities I've seen people create in Excel (even without VBA) you might reconsider that statement.

Be very worried if someone says "we have this Excel spreadsheet that needs to be turned into an app"....

If programming is wizardry, things written in Excel are definitely necromancy: the end result is shambling, hideous, and unnatural, but for certain things it gets the job done.

I have also seen a company (tech) who used an excel spreadsheet as part f its accounts system turns out it was faulty and was a factor to the company going bust - the main one was ICANT tho

=A1+B1 is not awesome for normal people. If you want, you can do magic with anything, but it was only an example.

> If it's just making some formula in spreadsheet work

Excel functionality is on part with some programming languages.


Probably depends on what field they're in and how much 'further ahead' they seem compared to everyone else. I suspect some people think of people/teams who are really good at programming video games as 'magicians'. And when they're so good at programming that they outshine pretty much the entire rest of their 'industry' or 'niche', then I can definitely see people treating them like magicians. There were certainly people who saw the developer of the SMW hack Brutal Mario as one, thanks to the huge amounts of custom code present for the new enemies/bosses/blocks/level gimmicks/whatever else:


But eh, I suspect a good programmer in most fields wouldn't be seen as 'magical'.

> I don't know anything about chemical engineering but I've never considered chemical engineers to be magical.

For a layman who's curious about computers, he can just go to a computer and try stuff. Worst outcome from there is loss of some data.

If you're curious about chemical engineering, you're restrained a bit, because you're not really going to go near equipment that can easily blow you up, burn you, freeze you, or poison you.

So without the tantalizing hints that IT drops near you all the time, you're not going to wonder whether chemical engineers are wizards.

> Worst outcome from there is loss of some data.

From personal experience, that is more than scary enough for some to never attempt anything at all.

I think the point is any profession that can wield unusual control over other things (or people) can be described in this way.

That would include people like psychologists, hypnotists, marketers, politicians etc. Once you know all the tricks it stops being magical, but it takes a lot of time and effort to know all the tricks.

Unlike chemical engineers, programmers have the ability to give specific instructions that machines obey. We put things in motion.

have you met any designers?

"...Ever tried to set up a Postfix server?" is the new "...Ever tried to set up a Sendmail server?".

(When I was younger, I was told by a veteran sysadmin that only 5 persons in the world knew how to configure Sendmail directly, everyone else was relying on preprocessing scripts written by the aforementioned wizards).

Edit: my point is that Postfix is actually quite easy to configure, compared to Sendmail which was the standard in the 90s.

OP and writer of the article here.

I'm embarassed to say that I wrote Postfix when I meant Sendmail! I might just go ninja-edit that now :)

> When I was younger, I was told by a veteran sysadmin that only 5 persons in the world knew how to configure Sendmail directly, everyone else was relying on preprocessing scripts written by the aforementioned wizards).

Ha! When I jumped into Linux during the summer of 95, I spent many many days and nights writing directly sendmail.cf rules, because I could not understand and use any of those damn M4 scripts... Handwriting sendmail.cf parts was more straightforward for me (for some value of 'straightforward').

20 years later, I have yet to get around to grasping M4.

See also: argument-dependent lookup rules in C++

Is it? I've only modified existing configurations, but Postfix doesn't seem bad.

Postfix is quite simple, provided you already know how MTAs work and can google the right terms.

Sendmail.cf deserves its reputation.

> Sendmail.cf deserves its reputation.

Hah; I had to look at a sendmail config a while back for a legacy server. It's line noise.

I've picked Postfix entirely because Exim is difficult and overkill for my purposes...

This is a really well-written article. It's clear, concise and sticks to the point, not drowning the reader in anecdotes and unrelated analogies. I've thought these same thoughts myself when explaining automation and how it would affect their lives to my parents, and was met with mostly indifference not because they were stubborn but because they simply couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that a computer (which, when they were growing up as teens, weren't even capable of doing things like e-mails) could ever fully replace them, people who studied for years to master and certify their respective jobs. This article describes that experience in a truly creative and interesting way.

This puts me in mind of Aphyr's series on a powerful wizard interviewing in the valley:




I think there are wizards but I'm not one of them.

It's definitely an old metaphor. SICP is the "Wizard Book" after all, and IIRC they even used the term "incantations" to describe commands and programming constructs at some points, though it's been well over a decade since I've leafed through it.

We conjure the spirits of the computer with our spells.

I've never seen wizards in fantasy novels have to deal with myriads of JIRA tickets, attend interminable mind-numbing meetings and solve impossible dependency hells. I guess that's why they call it fantasy.

Bob Howard in the Laundry series by Charles Stross is a wizard who has started out in IT and who does have to go to interminable powerpoint meetings and work through lots of hideous beaurocracy.

Allow me to introduce you to the wizards of the Unseen University...

We have found the grumpy wizard

I find it at the very least a little ironic that the author used consumer technology to simulate magic abilities (to such an immersive state that he had to put a low-horror mode) and uses his success in this department as an argument that consumer technology doesn't very closely convey the feeling of magic.

I appreciate the argument being made, but I can't say that I accept the premise that (sufficiently advanced) consumer technology is often unlike magic.

Hell, just sending out an invisible beam of light towards a magic black box so that it can remotely open up a window to a lands that may or may not exist is an awfully cool reality to hide behind the rather normal sounding acronym "TV", and that's hardly cutting edge technology.

He was talking specifically about the feeling of doing magic, not the feeling of experiencing magic being done. He's interpreting "X feels like magic" as "X feels like being a wizard." Playing a VR game doesn't feel like being a wizard; it just feels like having a spell cast on you.

There is something in the fact that consumer products often try to 'get out of the way'. So yes, the way it actually works is extremely magical, but it manages to hide it so well that people don't really think about it. The fact that the remote controls the TV is just a fact of life and the way the world works, while how to stop the radio from bleeping every night at midnight, that is magical.

Getting hit pretty hard. To very briefly summarize, the article reviews an occasional trope in writing about our field, namely that it has some interesting correspondences with old-style conceptions of magic - from hermitical study of certain esoterica granting access to powers and principalities beyond the ordinary ken, through potentially hostile reaction to same among those lacking such secret knowledge and frightened by the prospect of a world increasingly founded on it, to "do not call up what you cannot put down" in the context of modern AI and ML research and the applications thereof.

My server (where this guest article is hosted) is fielding some 20 HTTP GET requests/second and is holding up fine (load avg. is still under 1.0). I'm guessing there may be some routing problems — antipope.org is hosted in the UK.

It did seem a little atypical to see your blog struggling under HN traffic. Now I guess I know why!

And this is why I program in Go.

Hardware OS Program (no libc, no dynamic libs, no external runtime)

Go specializes in "it runs like you read it". I hate magic in my program and I distrust programmers who program like a magician.

Go is still a pile of abstractions built on top of another pile of abstractions that almost no one fully groks. It doesn't seem significantly less "magical" than any other commonly-used language, especially from the perspective of non-wizards, even if it might be a better tool for casting certain spells.

I don't know if your "hardware OS program" is representative. Try writing a trivial web application using cutting edge technologies. You'll quickly see how much you have to know to work on even trivial applications.

When I was a preteen, I'd watch Notch's ld48 programming streams, and I'd just be confused. I had read the basics of if-statements, for-loops, and functions, but he was using them in a way beyond my comprehension.

Later I discovered MIT's Scratch, and it let me figure things out on my own: games, physics, genetic algorithms.

I think programming is portrayed to be more difficult than it is. It's a mixture between programmers trying to find the most efficient system, and the public's half-uncertainty of computers being magnified.

I think 90% of the difficulty of learning to program is building and interpreting your mental models of how everything works. This is unfortunate, because everyone's mental models are different, and it's the same problem we see in math teaching, where things are extremely difficult until it "clicks" and suddenly it's so easy

It is why everyone has to write their own version of a monad tutorial. :)

Wait, you can do genetic algorithms in Scratch?

Infinite tape; party on...

I'm not sure if that was intentional, but yeah that's mine!

Looks like it's starting to buckle, mirror just in case: http://archive.is/Vx9u7

I think of magic as the fantasy of relating to the world around you in the same way as to your own subconscious. This has obvious appeal -- by System 2 standards, your System 1 is a super-powered genie -- and lots of story potential from the familiar difficulty and cross-purposes of that interface. But we need more of the Alan Kay-ish notion of augmenting your System 2 abilities instead (if I have his philosophy roughly right) -- 'magic' in the service of clear thinking instead of mysticism. Environments that invite you to dig into any part that puzzles or frustrates you, figure out the problem, change it. We shouldn't accept the black box so readily.

This metaphor is really stretched thin and doesn't help much with explaining anti-tech sentiments.

I really don't see why complicated wizardry is required for something to be magical. That seems to be an assumption coming from the author's genre. There are plenty of brands of magic which include extensive creation of magical artifacts which anyone can use (akin to consumer electronics).

As for anti-tech sentiments, I don't think any complicated allegory to burning witches is required. It really just feels like the natural result of technologists gaining wealth—almost every high-earning profession has significant critics (cf. lawyers, investment bankers).

There was a magical crystal that blessed the land with bountiful harvest every year, until civil war broke out in the country. Mysteriously the crystal shattered into a thousand pieces and parts of it fell all over the continent. Some parts were irrevocably lost.

After the civil war was settled, and the country split in two, famine ravaged both sides. It is up to you, my courageous wizard, to recover the parts that still exists, and to rediscover how to recreate the parts that were destroyed, and reassemble the crystal into a whole again.

Hostility from former enemies, unexpected allies, and dark conspiracy abounds.

... Yep, that totally describes my current gig with an MNC right now...

This whole mystifying programming may be good for the ego but its not real.

Anyone sufficiently interested can learn programming, and even work as a programmer without a degree and the 3-4 years of education and training other professions require.

And programming is not particularly difficult, people learn for more than 16-20 years of their life. Those interested will pick it up.

There is something seriously wrong in the tech community when many are quick and even eager to think of others as stupid. This is not only immature but its disconnected from reality. I think many should spend compulsory time with kids to understand how truly wonderful the human brain is.

> many are quick and even eager to think of others as stupid

There is no hard data I could find but I would guess* that the average programmer probably has a higher IQ than 100. So if we define "stupid" as "not as smart as oneself" then this belief is probably somewhat true.

*Having worked with a lot of different kinds of programmers and having also worked with the general public.

From the first comment:

> I don't think we're looking at a Butlerian Jihad any time soon

I personally know many people that see something Butlerian Jihad-like as inevitable. Most say they would regret the loss of some technology, but the appeal of being free of complex wizardry trying to manipulate them in ways seem forever outside their understanding has increased a lot over the last few years.

A small-ish subset of that group are actively trying to start a Buterian Jihad. Don't write off the possibility of blowback from the growing group of people that feel technology (and the people that make it) are "disrupting" their income wht remains of their agency over their own lives. There are many ways that could play out - most are not full revolts against technology - but predicting the future is hard. What I do know is that when you see pitchforks and torches... it's too late.

Only wizards in some kind of coastal ego bubble

More like "Burn the programmer! Adobe has crashed for the third time today!", or "Burn the programmer! YouTube has 100k+ likes on my copyrighted video (that someone else uploaded), and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!"

From what I've heard, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" seems unsupported by available historical evidence:


>Among others. I searched and read a lot, looking for anything along the lines of "the long-isolated tribesmen were amazed at seeing a cell phone for the first time, and asked 'what kind of magic is this?'" But I have not found anything that relates a story of confusing technology with magic.

>The additional point about the tendency of visitors to THINK they've been perceived as superior divinities is extremely valuable.

This reminds me of the hostility towards the Tinkers in Vernor Vinge's The Peace War.

(Fun fact: horror games are more intense in VR, by some margin. So terrifying, in fact, that I added a "Low Terror Mode" recently, after reading a significant number of people saying "I'd love to play your game, but I absolutely won't, because it sounds way too scary.")

While I would love to play the full terror mode, the low terror mode made me think of a game that replaced the undead horrors you summon with giant puppies that lick your foes until they lose all feelings of anger. A silly idea, to be sure, but it would be fun to play if the theme was expanded on just to see the insanity, and that's the stuff cult (in the media sense...) followings talk about decades later.

Hah! That's an interesting idea. I might just think about doing that for an April Fools' or similar...

I think it's Skyrim that has a mod to replace the giant spiders with bears...

I think it's less of an issue of programmers in general in danger of being seen as witches and more of a certain breed of programmer. You know the type. Not even the obviously "bad guys" and "hackers" induce that much of a visceral reaction.

The sort of kid so detached from their community that yes, they might as well live in a haughty ivory tower with a handful of their peers and bring their arcane gizmos wherever they go and look down upon muggles in disdain. Those are I'm worried about giving the rest of us spellweavers a bad rap.

Haha yes, many have laid the link between magic and computers/programming. I remember as a child being very interested in magic and that fascination naturally refocussed to computers in my adult life.

Also check out this website for a funny parable about computers, DNS, wizards and the NSA: http://grimoire.computer/

If people enjoyed this post, you might be interested to hear that the author (me) is currently doing an AMA over on Reddit, too -


No. The only people that seem to get upset about this is the media, because their power is being usurped by Facebook, and Silicon Valley itself. Go 30 mins outside of the Bay Area and everyone thinks Silicon Valley is great, and programmers work magic. Living in this tech bubble gives a skewed view of the world, but really no one cares.

Even the people whose jobs are being displaced by automation?

I get the impression that right now they’re too busy blaming offshoring and immigrants to realise that their jobs have been automated and nobody is doing them.

Or figuring they'll just get another job, or their job will have them do something else instead of whatever it is that got automated.

'But I can't help but feel, looking at a lot of the media pushback at the moment, that a lot of it is straight-up fantasy novel 101 "Reactions To Wizardry".'

If the last US recession is any indication, the elite (in this case, the quants), can ruin a national economy and not get burned.

I wish the author gave less vague examples to his claims.

I’m suspicious of the idea people are afraid of wizards versus wising up to the fact that wizards aren’t as wise and just as society presumed they were. They’ve found out that wizards are just people with a particular skill set.

The notion of a terribly powerful yet unintelligible wizard really isn't that novel a situation. Lawyers have long suffered that role, and among several communities (e.g. anti-vax, alternative med.), medical doctors too.

Most of us would just be full of ourselves to call ourselves magicians or imagine that anyone else sees us that way.

But there are people working towards creating things that no one will be able to control once they're out.

That horse has bolted

I wrote about this in 2011 -


Programming is like Alchemy

If anyone's burning the programmers is the AI, Block chain programmers. Very soon, the industry will need/have a very small fraction of programmers than what we have today.

I won't call it magic, for me programming is like alchemy.

I think about this a lot. To control atoms and construct new systems using language and thoughtforms alone seems as close to magic as you can get.

So if programmers are wizards, who is our Voldemort that wants us to rule the world? ;)

He who controls the book of faces.

Goddamn, that really does sound sinister as hell.

interesting premise in the article but masked by horrible writing. i had to reread this multiple times to understand the point of it. the transition from talking about VR to programming was incredibly vague.

I disagree. I thought it was very clear and concise.

I also disagree. Clear, interesting, and entertaining. I even smiled at a couple parts.

relevant xkcd flowchart to wizardry:


To me, many forms of artistry like singing and dance are so much more magical than anything we do. We just type a bunch of shit into computers until they do stuff, poorly.

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