[Haskell-cafe] Mozart versus Beethoven (was: Writing "Haskell For Dummies ...)

Kurt kurt.schelfthout at gmail.com
Thu Dec 14 04:11:34 EST 2006

If I remember my EWD's[1] right, whether or not composing music is similar  
to writing programs was not Dijkstra's point. I paraphrase (possibly from  
another EWD, can't be bothered to look it up):

Computers, in their capacity as a tool, are highly overrated.

Dijkstra was referring to the fact (as also pointed out earlier in this  
thread) that, due to the volatility of things written on a computer (be it  
text, code or whatever), someone who writes things on a computer is  
inclined, even encouraged, to write in a very iterative fashion. Aka you  
just blabber on until you read the whole thing, press shift-pageup delete,  
and more or less start over (times 20).

Dijkstra argued that this leads to bad thinking habits, and maintained a  
(in those and these days) very special writing style, typically by hand or  
with a typewriter. It forces you to actually think about a sentence before  
you put it down. It is a habit I have been trying to cultivate myself, and  
I must say no one here will be able to convince me that he or she can more  
quickly outweigh different sentences or paragraph options on screen than I  
can in my head. Whenever I want to write something down, and I just can't  
seem to get it "right", I just take an empty piece of paper and write it.  
By hand. With a pen. I'm just old enough that I can remember writing  
papers in the earlier years of high school, by hand. I used to write them  
exactly twice: one time to get the text right, one time on the special  
school paper that I didn't like to waste. I've been re-training myself to  
be able to do that again.

I've actually looked into some fairly old research, concerning the use of  
word processor and various so called tools in offices (not available  
online afaik, you'll have to search the library). If I remember correctly,  
some experiment was set up where professionial writers (journalists,...)  
were asked to write a number of words, some by hand, some with computers  
(as they preferred, ie as there habits dictated). It turns out that the  
writers who write by hand wrote much faster. Other studies typically show  
a decrease in offcice productivity after the installation of computer  
supported tools.

Even on a recent ICSE (2005 I think), I saw a presentation of a  
sociologist or psychologist who measered the number of correct diagnosis  
of breast cancer using mammography, both with and without computer  
support. The outcome was not spectacularly in favour of the  
computer-supported case. It makes people lazy, and feel less responsible.  
Typically the harder to spot cases are better found by doctors without any  
computer support.

I highly recommend reading some EWD's. They have changed my view on  
computing, programming, writing, basically about everything I do in my  
daily life.


[1] Over a thousand manuscripts written by Edsger W. Dijkstra over his  
carreer, all available online. http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/

More information about the Haskell-Cafe mailing list