forest for the trees – abstractions

When faced with designing objects, many developers immediately try to identify the abstractions. They have a preconception that the world must be organized as a hierarchy of abstractions. They quickly run into situations that don’t fit nicely into their hierarchy. They struggle to force-fit things into this model. After a while, they ask for help.

The world is not a tree. There may be forests. But generally the world is what it is. Do not force things to be a part of a tree, when that is not what they are. That should be obvious enough. It is always the most obvious things that are difficult to realize, when one is blinded by misconceptions.

Step 1. Identify the concrete types. Start from the objects that will actually exist, not from higher level abstractions. The concretes have definite characteristics that can be analyzed. These characteristics are where the abstractions will be found later through refactoring (unit economy). Concretes are characterized by their behavior. A concrete has roles and responsibilities relative to other objects with which it collaborates. It may be necessary to decompose a concrete into smaller parts that take on those distinct roles and responsibilities (separation of concerns) more clearly.

Step 2. Refactor the characteristics into higher level abstractions. Identify characteristics and behaviors that are common across concretes. Often behaviors can be seen as actions performed on the concretes (rather than actions performed by the concretes), and there is a distinct characteristic that each action depends on. I frequently call such a characteristic a capability, and the action is known as a generic algorithm. As this refactoring proceeds, the generic algorithms and the capabilities are identified as higher level abstractions shared or applied across concretes.

Step 3. Refactor the algorithms and capabilities. As the generic algorithms are implemented against the capabilities of the concretes, the methods will often benefit from factoring out commonality (duplicate code). Parts of the algorithm may benefit from being specialized through pluggable policies. These motivations identify additional abstractions at finer granularities. The finer grained parts of algorithms will likely act upon finer grained capabilities on the concretes. Broader generalizations and narrower specializations appear in the model as a consequence of this iterative approach due to refactoring to reduce complexity (the complexity is refactored to become encapsulated within objects, which are more manageable than messy algorithms).

The resulting model is forests of trees, along with lions and tigers and bears, as well as all the other concretes that exist in the world. Things as they really are. The way it ought to be.

red shift in an expanding universe

As we look into the distance, we see deep into the past towards the big bang. It is mind boggling how unintuitive this is. If you look far enough into the distance, you should be able to see the earliest moments of the universe. This is the cosmic background radiation. Quarks condensed into the first protons and neutrons.

What is more confusing to me is the interpretation of the evidence that suggests the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. This conclusion is based on observing red shifts. The farther an object is from us, the faster it appears to be moving away. Unless I’m misunderstanding something, doesn’t this tell us that the expansion of the universe is actually slowing down? Let me explain.

Wouldn’t an accelerating expansion demonstrate higher differences in velocity (red shift) for objects nearer to us? Since they are near, we see them as they were relatively recently as compared to far away objects. If the rate of expansion is accelerating, then observations of more recent events should show higher velocities than observations of events in the more distant past. On the other hand, if the velocity of distant objects is higher than the velocity of nearer objects, then shouldn’t it be logical to conclude that expansion is slowing rather than quickening?

quintessence – dark energy

I have begun to read Quintessence. It starts out rather dull. I am hoping that it picks up soon. Unlike End of Time, the author’s style is not provocative; he seems very methodical — though I’m only at the beginning, which contains all the introductory context.

Dark matter and dark energy have become a favorite topic for my curiosity. What better subject can there be to help stimulate the imagination? Observations suggest that there is something incredibly important throughout the universe that dominates its behavior, and no one knows what it is. These things cannot be sensed directly. They are completely different than anything we know today.

Free your mind.

Many people are unable to free their minds of what they know to be true, so that they can evaluate ideas from a different perspective. It is debilitating to be a rigid thinker. They are weak at evaluating alternative mental models, because they cannot apply their limited imagination in constructing such models.

What kind of image does the expanding universe invoke? Does your mind picture the universe itself as a ball growing larger, its boundaries stretching outwards? Or does it picture, as an observer within the universe itself, all of the galaxies moving away from eachother? Or does it picture a static universe without any notion of time or motion, and the expansion is merely a path in configuration space? Does it recognize the false notion of being an outside observer, while allowing this fiction to be imagined?

How do you picture the void of empty space? Is it a three (or higher) dimensional grid? Is it curved by the massive objects? Is it absolutely nothing at all, except for the void between things that actually exist? Or is it ethereal, filled with virtual particles that flash in and out of existence beyond our ability to perceive?

At many points in history, fundamental questions as simple as “what is space?” and “what is time?” have been asked and answered. Still we do not know the true answers; we only have intuitive notions based on teachings that have been socialized. We go through school learning mostly by rote the laws of the universe, such as those related to motion, momentum, and energy — notions that depend on understanding space and time. We are taught to treat space and time as intuitively obvious, because they are understood ostensibly. Yet, there may not be a single human being that has ever truly understood the nature of space and time — if those ideas have any correspondence to reality at all, and the jury is definitely out on that one. Despite this dilemma, the vast majority of students finish school with confidence that they know a great deal about space, time, motion, and many other important things. They don’t have an appreciation for the context of their knowledge — the limited scope of understanding that is encapsulated. They are taught the current state of understanding, which is good enough for most practical purposes in ordinary life. They are lies, or reasonable facsimiles of the truth, good enough to get you through most days without going too awry.

Just as the earth is not flat (though from a person’s viewpoint, it may appear that way), and the sun does not orbit the earth (though from a person’s viewpoint, it may appear that way), these ideas were once at the pinnacle of human knowledge, only to be invalidated later. We accept theories like general relativity and quantum mechanics because there isn’t yet any better explanation. They can be applied to good effect as a practical matter for a limited set of problems. But let us not forget that the accuracy of current theories has much room for improvement.

mda – model driven architecture

I explore Model Driven Architecture (MDA). This approach uses modeling for programming. Models drive the generation of code according to patterns.

We tend to write a lot of similar code over and over. If you have ever written code to persist a Java object into a relational database table, you know what I mean. It is similar for every object. Although the characters you type are different, there is a definite pattern, and you know deep down that an intelligent person should not have to endure such tedium day in and day out. The same goes for a lot of user interface code, like data entry forms. The same code gets written again and again; only the names are different.

I believe very strongly that model driven architecture is the way of the future for software development. Objects led to interfaces. Then, collaborations. Then, patterns and pattern languages (families of patterns). Model driven architecture is a natural extension of this trend. After identifying a pattern language, it should be possible to instantiate those patterns (write a software program) by expressing that intent through modeling. Modeling in the abstract sense is the act of capturing concepts in a notation.

I consider programming in Java to be a form of modeling. A programming language is not a very compact modeling language. Programming languages are designed to have a lot of redundancy to allow for error checking. Patterns in the code also indicate a lot of information that could be expressed in a more compact form. I view MDA as expressing software concepts in a very compact form (the model).

I think we need an example. I could write a program to represent pictures formed from geometric shapes. The software itself would probably require thousands of lines of code to perform the editing, rendering, and other functions. However, the application is really only dealing with a few basic concepts: ellipses, polygons, line segments, and a few others.

It should be possible to model each shape with a minimum number of parameters; e.g., an ellipse would be modeled by three points. In this manner, we could express any diagram understood by this application very compactly in a modeling language that captures the parameterization of shapes.

Now, let’s take that graphics package and reuse it as the foundation for constructing an application that renders telecommunications networks. This application deals with concepts like location, network elements, ports, and connections. Each concept is rendered with symbols, which are merely recurring patterns of our familiar geometric shapes.

The parameterization of shapes is no longer the most appropriate modeling language for capturing the essential concepts of this application. A more compact representation can be achieve by parameterizing the concepts that are directly understood by the application. This is the essence of model driven architecture.

Not everyone views MDA as I do. Actually, I have yet to encounter anyone who has expressed it as simply as that. Most proponents of MDA ramble on about UML and MOF and platform independence and all kinds of other non-essential mumbo jumbo. The key idea that is lost among the OMG UML/MOF folks is the notion of unit economy in the theory of concepts; that is the need to represent concepts in the most compact form. This is necessary within the mind, and this need is reflected in language.

UML makes perfect sense as a language for representing analysis and designs for software development. However, when one is looking to model concepts within any other context, the absurd verbosity and complexity exhibited by UML/MOF make as much sense as using geometric shapes as the modeling language for telecommunications networks.

collaboration – a business idea

business idea for enterprise collaboration

(Continued from 2002-07-08.) One of the biggest impediments to productivity is the lack of tools to facilitate collaboration. This was not as noticeable, when workers tended to be collocated with those they needed to collaborate. Physical collocation makes less sense today, when globalization requires companies to be distributed throughout the world.

Expertise is becoming so specialized that it is impossible to develop a broad range of skills in house and locally, so this creates a need to outsource and recruit teleworkers. Email, telephony, instant messaging, and intranet Web sites only go so far to facilitate communication with these remote sites. These technologies need to be integrated into business processes to facilitate wide scale real-time collaboration.

In a software development organization, there are very specific requirements that are unmet by today’s information technology. Software development tools tend to focus either on the relationship between individuals and code artifacts (e.g., integrated development environment) or the relationship between the code artifacts and the quality assurance processes for the software product (e.g., software configuration management). Over the past decade there has been a greater focus on analysis and design tools (e.g., UML modeling). However, modeling is a very small part of analysis and design. The majority of analysis involves the capture of requirements and use cases in the form of natural language (e.g., English) descriptions. This is a very iterative and interactive process among experts and analysts, and the information flows into design. Design is a very creative process among analysts, architects, and programmers in various areas of expertise (e.g., user interface, application server, database). The collaboration tools support for analysis and design are wholly inadequate today.

The software development community needs a Web based collaboration system for analysis and design. In the analysis space, Rational Requisite Web almost completely misses the mark for a requirements database. In the design space, there is nothing to facilitate the whiteboard-style interactions that are necessary during the creative process. Such interactions work toward evaluating design options and formally capturing the final design decisions. UML modeling is merely a visualization technique. UML diagrams are not in a format that is appropriate for communication between all stakeholders. Ultimately documents must be produced for the software architecture and the design of each subsystem. Collaboration tools are required for producing these artifacts as a team.

I have looked at using a Wiki to facilitate collaborative content creation. This is not a bad mechanism for authoring, reviewing, and revising content. However, it is wholly inadequate for taking that content and producing documents for publishing. Moreover, a Wiki alone is insufficient for handling all the various kinds of content that is needed for analysis and design (e.g., models, diagrams, code, user interface prototypes), and for managing the workflow.

I believe that this is a tremendous business opportunity. There is clearly a need for this kind of collaboration tool for software development. One can imagine this need extending into other engineering activities, and perhaps even into other disciplines (e.g., sales and marketing) within the enterprise. This is likely a $100M idea with a market window that is likely to remain open for quite some time. If I had the guts, I would probably pursue this one as my baby. I’ve got the perfect skillset and experience to make this happen.

timeless – thinking outside the box

I am sitting here in a Boeing 737 on the tarmac, as maintenance personnel check over the aircraft to determine why some indicator lights are showing a problem. What has been occupying my mind is the first few pages I’ve read of The End of Time – The Next Revolution in Physics by Julian Barbour. This book is a great example of thinking outside the box.

Barbour suggests that there is in reality no such thing as time. It is merely a figment of our misinterpretation of the facts, which result from the limited scope of our personal experiences. This idea is very provocative, because it goes against intuition and it seemingly contradicts everything we know to be true. There is something extremely violent and destructive in this notion. Just the possibility of setting fire to something that we hold as fundamental is exciting.

This is very serendipitous. My life’s work seems to revolve around creative thinking. One of my fundamental responsibilities is to think outside the box to solve problems that are beyond the normal capacity of others. I must imagine what lies outside of common knowledge, and embrace possibilities that may be seemingly absurd or false, in order to discover that something out there is in fact precisely what must be true (or brought into reality). Thinking outside the box requires that in fact there is no box. Or perhaps that all those poor souls, who thought they were in the box, were actually floating outside a bubble. Or something much more bizarre.

language design 101

Language provides us with the framework with which we express ideas. Numbers, arithmetic, and calculus are the language of mathematics. C, C++, and Java are languages for computer programming. This is only partly true, as Guy Steele Jr. explains in Growing a Language. This perspective on language design extends far beyond programming.

I will focus on software related language design. It is an exercise for the reader to extrapolate how the same principles apply to literature, music, and other forms of human expression.

Just as Java is the most basic vocabulary and grammar with which more expressive languages can be designed, English is similar. The language required to produce a book is far more advanced than English vocabulary and grammar. Literary devices, plot structure, and character development are patterns that are designed into the language of literature. Similarly, design patterns make Java a useful language for programming.

The language of object-oriented analysis and design (OOAD) is the Unified Modeling Language (UML). However, UML is not very expressive by itself. It was not designed to be as precise as programming languages, because it was motivated by the needs of conceptual modeling. They thought that conceptual modeling is not precise. That is the tragedy of imprecise thinkers.

Now, they have caught on to the idea of using models to generate code. This requires precision; a machine only understands 1 and 0. There is no room for ambiguity. It is now a huge challenge to apply UML to this model-driven architecture (MDA).

We are constantly grasping for ways to improve how we express ideas. A thousand words are better expressed with a picture. The concepts represented by the geometric shapes are better expressed with tags. Patterns are recognized as we organize those concepts into more advanced ones. As a consequence, many thousands of instructions are captured in a blueprint with a small number of symbols. At each step, we seek to be more expressive with compact representations. This is language design.

change is destruction – The New New Thing

I am reading The New New Thing. It is more captivating than I anticipated. It was given to me as recommended reading, but I had no idea what it was about. It is a biography of Jim Clark, the founder and inspiration behind SGI, Netscape, and the present commercialized dot com era of the Internet. Jim Clark was one of the Internet’s most important agents for change.

One characteristic of Clark’s appeals to me. He paid no respect for history. His only care is towards how to invent the future. The key word is “invent”, as opposed to predict. People who work at prognostication are merely an audience. Innovators aren’t just interested in looking forward, but in engineering it into existence.

I have noted before the difference between builders and breakers. However, creators are also destroyers in a sense. The reason for creating something new is to impose change upon that which is the source of dissatisfaction. The intent is to obliterate something, as it exists today, in order to replace it by something better. Engineers love to destroy things as we know it, and substitute a new world order that matches our vision. The great destroyer is change, and this weapon is wielded by original thinkers. They have no respect for authority. They show no reverence for what came before them.

The opposing force to change is the people trying to hold onto what they have, desperately fearing that the shape of their environment is being altered beyond their control. A person’s reaction to innovation is revealing. It shows one’s appreciation for creation, the power to destroy and reinvent. Or opposition, if that is the case. What do you call “visionaries” who are unable to recognize the future, even when it is put in front of them? Tourists are there to see things that others have built. I have no interest in seeing the world. I want to rebuild it.

Lessons from Feynman

I received a copy of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I’m only 86 pages into the book, and I’m already loving Richard Feynman. He was a truly brilliant man.

No doubt Feynman felt responsible in part for the development of the atomic bomb. His first hand account of his time in the Manhattan Project is gripping and hilarious. This man’s efficacy and his light-hearted perspective are inspirational.

And the one thing that Von Neumann gave me was an idea that he had which was interesting. That you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in, and so I have developed a very strong sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man since.

Feynman reminisced about his father’s influence on his childhood learning. Here is a notable passage that demonstrates how well his father’s views align with my own.

there was a picture of the Pope and everybody bowing in front of him. […] Why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and his position, because of his uniform, not because of something special he did, or his honor, or something like that.

Recognitions of symbol versus substance catch my attention.

Like any advanced thinker, Feynman’s ability manifested in a diverse set of ideas.

Because of the success of science, there is, I think, a kind of pseudoscience. Social science is an example […] We get experts on everything that sound like they’re sort of scientific experts. They’re not scientific, they sit at a typewriter and they make up something like, oh, food grown with, er, fertilizer that’s organic is better for you than food grown with fertilizer that’s inorganic – may be true, may not be true, but it hasn’t been demonstrated one way or the other. But they’ll sit there on the typewriter and make up all this stuff as if it’s science and then become an expert on foods, organic foods and so on. There’s all kinds of myths and pseudoscience all over the place.

I may be quite wrong, maybe they know all these things, but I don’t think I’m wrong. You see, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it, they haven’t done the work necessary.

That is priceless.

road to utopia

into the fast lane

In the long term, I still firmly believe that it is modestly priced, high volume consumer services like telephony, television, video on demand, music, gaming, and e-commerce that will be Utopia for Communications Service Providers (CSPs). There are many obstacles that must be overcome first: political reforms (regulation, laws, licenses, spectrum), radical changes to content provider business models, network infrastructure investments (fiber, packet radio, and IPv6), cost reductions to high end gear (optical CPE routers, IP enabled home theaters), and a critical mass of adopters. There are too many factors to accelerate artificially; it must happen as a natural progression.

Consumers are notoriously frugal. They generally purchase the minimum to satisfy their needs. Anything beyond what is good enough becomes a luxury. To succeed in this market, it is crucial to provide services perceived to be essential rather than merely luxurious. Without that economy of scale, a provider cannot recuperate the cost of building out the infrastructure to neighborhoods.

In the meantime, there are high value services that can address immediate needs. Businesses are always in search of productivity gains and improving efficiencies.

  1. Collaboration – With enterprises extending their global reach, workers in remote offices will need to collaborate more effectively. Video-conferencing, remote white boarding, groupware, and other real-time collaborative work tools will significantly reduce the need for in-person meetings. Expensive, time-consuming travel will become largely unnecessary.
  2. Teleworking – Urban traffic congestion, costly office facilities, and a diversely distributed global workforce are all forces that will encourage greater use of telework. Effective online collaboration and improved broadband access will enable workers, who want the convenience of working from home, the ability to do so without any compromise in productivity.
  3. Business Integration – This is already underway. Supply chain management and other forms of business-to-business (B2B) integration are improving the ability to outsource. Concentrating on core competencies implies contracting out non-core work to business partners, who do consider that work to be their core competency.

Enterprises are willing to invest in incremental improvements to business efficiencies, because there are measurable returns. The capital markets exert great pressure for such improvements to be demonstrated each and every fiscal quarter. This market can be penetrated without having to incur sizable short-term losses, unlike the pricing that is necessary to penetrate the consumer market. Whereas information technology is often considered a luxury to consumers, it is clearly essential to many businesses.

The productivity gains at work become catalysts for workers desiring similar lifestyle improvements at home. Online collaboration with remote coworkers leads to online collaboration with family and friends. Telework leads to home workers applying the technology already installed towards personal entertainment. General availability of the technology tends to stimulate new opportunities as users discover new ways to apply it. It is this manner of cultivating markets that will lead us to the end goal.

Insights into innovation