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Technological Similes (e.g., Silverlight is like . . .)


A few years ago I posted a list of technological similes on this blog involving the term “Ajax” which I aggregated from a Google Search.  You can read about it here.

It occurred to me that a similar search of similes involving the term “Silverlight” might be equally fruitful, much like throwing a fishing net into a sewer and seeing what comes back.  Voila the results:

Silverlight is like a little baby.”

“Silverlight is like Flash.”

“Silverlight is like Flash … only different.”

“Comparing Flex to Silverlight is like comparing apples and oranges.”

Silverlight is like all choppy and slow which slow down my browser like hell.”

“Silverlight is like ajax and Flex.”

“Silverlight is like a lightweight version of WPF…”

“Silverlight is like a browser add-on that can understand XMAL code.”

"Silverlight is like OS X.”

“At a time like this, finding an article written as recently as Feb 2009, and listing the strengths of Silverlight, is like finding lots and lots of drinking water when thirsty in a desert.”

"Silverlight is like activex all over again – arghhhhh!"

“In the experience world WPF is the Ferrari, Silverlight is like a Lexus, and Ajax is that Nissan Stanza that your sisters boyfriend bought…”

“Microsoft Silverlight is like the proverbial elephant…”

“After playing with the beta for a few weeks, developing a control in Silverlight is like walking through mud.”

“Using Silverturd instead of Silverlight is like using M$ instead of Microsoft and people who do that are looked down upon.”

“Someone memtioned Silverlight is like Java plugin?”

“I read on one blog that programming with Silverlight is like going camping with .NET.”

“Silverlight is like the wild wild west. Everyone code however they want, Every new discovery is like virgin territory…”

“The easy developing tool provided by Silverlight is like candy to lure developers in and cage them…”

“SilverLight is like Flash on Crack.”

Silverlight is like the force. It has a light side and a … uh…… silver side.”

“Silverlight is like an add on. Almost after the fact. I haven’t thought it through…”

Concerning Facts

In the early chapters of A Study In Scarlet, John H. Watson observes of his friend Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.  Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.  Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done.  My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.  That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could harldly realize it.

There is a similar strain of incredulity, both within the United States as well as without, when it is observed that a vast number of Americans claim they do not believe in Evolution.  It is a source of such consternation that the beliefs of presidential candidates on this matter are speculated upon and discussed as a sort of key that will reveal the secret heart of these men and women.  Are people who do not believe in Evolution simply of lower intellectual abilities than the rest of us?  Or is it rather that the decision not to believe is an indication of other values, tied together in a web of beliefs, that hinge on certain characteristics which make these people ultimately alien in their thought patterns, radically other in their perception of reality?  Do these people pose a threat to the homogeneity of world view that we take for granted in public discourse?

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise.  “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like alittle empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be ueful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other tings, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it…. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

If they deny one fact, what else might they deny?  If they hold this set of beliefs, what else might they cleave to?  As a Scientific American article put it,

“Embarrassingly, in the 21st century, in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy. They lobby for creationist ideas such as “intelligent design” to be taught as alternatives to evolution in science classrooms.

“In addition to the theory of evolution, meaning the idea of descent with modification, one may also speak of the fact of evolution.  The NAS defines a fact as “an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as true …. All sciences frequently rely on indirect evidence. Physicists cannot see subatomic particles directly, for instance, so they verify their existence by watching for telltale tracks that the particles leave in cloud chambers. The absence of direct observation does not make physicists’ conclusions less certain.”

The atheism entry on puts it more baldly:

“Evolutionary theory is the organizing principle for all modern biology – denial of it is like denying relativity in modern physics. The fact of evolution — the fact that allele frequencies change in populations over time — is as undeniable as are the actions of gravity or continental shifts. Despite this, only a third of Americans actually think that evolution is supported by the evidence…. People who don’t “accept” evolution are guilty of very unfortunate ignorance, but it’s probably an understandable ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised if people were similarly ignorant of other aspects of science. It’s a sign of the great scientific illiteracy of American culture.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue marks this conflation of theory and facts (evolution is a fact, but it is also a theory) as a product of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Empiricism is based on the notion that what we see is what there actually is.  It depends on the belief (or is it fact?) that our experiences are reliable.  Natural science, on the other hand, depends on tools of measurement as the arbiter of what is real.  The telescope tells us more than our unreliable eyes can. 

“…[I]n the measurement of temperature the effect of heat on spirits of alcohol or mercury is given priority over the effect of heat on sunburnt skin or parched throats.”

Just as theory is dependent upon measurement to verify it, so measurement is dependent on theory to justify it.  We require a theory of how heat affects mercury in order to be able to rely on our thermometer.  Yet this is so far from the notions of common sense and perception which undergird empiricism.

“There is indeed therefore something extraordinary in the coexistence of empiricism and natural science in the same culture, for they represent radically different and incompatible ways of approaching the world.  But in the eighteenth century both could be incorporated and expressed within one and the same world-view.  It follows that that world-view is at its best radically incoherent….”

Out of this notion of the fact, as something both self-evident and obscure at the same time, Max Weber formulated the opposition central to his theorizing, and still central to the modern world view: the fact-value distinction.  Just as a fact has a dual nature, a value also has an inherent ambiguity. It is both a choice as well as something imposed upon us by society.  In its second form, it is something that can be studied by the social sciences, and consequently can be analyzed to some degree as a fact.  In the first form, it is radically subjective, and as indeterminate as the swerve of Lucretius.

The matter can be framed as something even stranger than that.  In existentialist terms, the choice is something we are always obliged to make, so that the notion of a “factual” value is ultimately false, or worse, inauthentic.  From a scientific view point, on the other hand, choice is illusory, and merely a stand-in for facts we do not yet know.

It is these two terms, as vague as they are, that inform our public discourse.  On the one hand, facts are something we should all agree upon; the replacement of values for facts is considered an act of civil disobedience.  If we can’t agree on the facts, then what can we agree on?  On the other hand, we should not be driven by facts alone.  Is it enough to say that a market economy in the long run is the most efficient way to distribute goods?  What about social justice?  What about idealism?  What about values?

I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him.

It is the state-of-mind of Evolution-deniers I find most fascinating.  The more I think about them, the more I long to be one.  They hold a strange position that while they want to leave room in public science education for the creationism — hence the insistence on the public avowal that evolution is “only a theory” — they appear to have no desire to actually displace the teaching of evolutionary biology.  Perhaps this is merely strategic, a camel’s nose under the tent. 

But what if we take them at their word?  In that case, they want to find a way to make the fact of evolution and the value of creationism exist side-by-side.  They want to take nothing away from evolution to the extent that it is a practical tool that provides technology for them and extends their lives, but they also want to take nothing away from faith to the extent that it provides a reason to live and a way to go about it.  It is a world-view only possible with the construction of the fact-value distinction.  It is a beautiful attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, and to make possible a plurality of beliefs that should not co-exist.  Still, it is a world-view that is at its best radically incoherent. 

“I don’t like to talk much with people who always agree with me. It is amusing to coquette with an echo for a little while, but one soon tires of it.”

— Thomas Carlyle

Technological Similes (e.g., Ajax is like…)

 As mentioned in a previous post, programmers typically explain one technology by referencing another more familiar technology.  What sometimes happens, however, is that the technology that was thought to be more familiar, and consequently believed to have explanatory power, in fact was simply originally explained by referencing some third vaguely understood technology; but time made the simile comfortable and vanity made it acceptable.  We only become aware of the semantic web we programmers weave when we are finally forced to use one of the referenced technologies and discover, once again, what a strange and incomprehensible thing programming is.  The experience is a bit like the shock felt by the woman who brought home a stray dog from Paris only to discover that it was really a large tailless rat.

To find out what one of the trendier new technologies is really like, I recently consulted Google.  A google search on “Ajax is like…” turns up the following results:

“Comparing Java and AJAX is like comparing apples and blue.”

“[U]sing Ajax is like consuming alcohol in public.”

“[A]jax is like instant messaging….”

“Customers asking for AJAX is like a prospective homeowner walking over to the contractors hired to do the building and handing them a saw.”

“AJAX is like Flash or HTML.”

“AJAX is like a javascript.”

“AJAX is like Javascript on steroids.”

“AJAX is like web services.”

“[A]jax is like everything else on line, it will be abused by various low lifes.”

“Ajax is like to partial update in Intraweb I am wrong?”

“Ajax is like ‘roller skates for the web.'”

“Ajax is like shell, Perl, Ruby. Ajax is like UNIX.”

“AJAX is like a Hooker turn School Teacher, it has a dirty secret and unless you get it alone and play with it, you won’t pickup on it’s secrets until it’s too late.”

“Ajax is, like stated in the essay, a new way to think about user interfaces on the web….”

“AJAX is like wearing 70’s djeans with an Hugo Boss Shoes….”

“AJAX is like Dinosaur cloning in Jurassic park.”

“AJAX is like folding a web page origami-style into a Lego brick….”

“AJAX is like a house of cards, and when a browser vendor screws up on a revision it’ll all come tumbling down.”

“AJAX is like putting a tiny bandage on a gaping wound the size of a grapefruit.”

“Ajax is like DHTML was 4 years ago, like javascript was 6 years ago, like applets were 8 years ago.”

“AJAX is like the killer buzzword.”

Metaphors and Software Development

“But the greatest thing by far is to have a mastery of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”  — Aristotle, The Poetics


It is a trivial observation that software programmers use a lot of metaphors.  All professions are obliged to invoke metaphors in one way or another, but in software programming I think the program is so extensive that we are not even aware of the fact that creating metaphors is our primary job.  We are only ever immediately aware of the metaphorical character of our profession when we use similes to explain technical matters to our managers.  Such-and-such technology will improve our revenue stream because it is like a new and more reliable conduit for information. It can be combined with sundry-and-other technology, which acts as a locked box for this information.

When speaking with technical colleagues, in turn, we use a different set of metaphors when explaining unfamiliar technology.  We say that “Ajax is like Flash”, “Flash is like instant messaging”, “instant messaging is like talking to services in a SOA”, “SOA is like mainframe programming”, b is like c, c is like d, d is like e, and so on.  Every technology is explained in reference to another technology, which in turn is just a metaphor for something else.  But does explicating one metaphor by simply referencing another metaphor really explain anything?  Is there a final link in the chain that ultimately cascades meaning back up the referential chain?

I have occasionally seen these referential chains referred to as a prison house of language, though perhaps a house of mirrors would be more appropriate in this case.  We work with very complex concepts, and the only way to communicate them is through metaphors, even when, as in a fun house, the only points of reference we have for explaining these concepts are other concepts we find reflected in a reflection of a reflection.  This metaphorical character of our occupation, however, is typically hidden from us because we use a different set of terms to describe what we do.  We don’t typically speak about metaphors in our programming talk; instead we speak of abstractions.

Not only are abstractions explained in terms of other abstractions, but they are also typically abstractions for other abstractions.  In Joel Spolsky’s explication of “Leaky Abstractions” (which is, yes, also a metaphor) we discover that TCP is really an abstraction thrown over IP.  But IP is itself an abstraction of other technologies, which in turn may in themselves also involve further abstractions.  At what point do the abstractions actually end?  Is it when we get to the assembler language level?  Is it when we get to machine language?  Do we finally hit bottom when we reach the point of talking about electricity and circuit boards?

Again, I will posit (in a handwaving and unsubstantiated manner) that the main occupation of a software programmer is working with metaphors.  Taking this as a starting point, it is strange that in the many articles and discussion threads addressing the question, what makes a good programmer?, poetry is never brought up. Overlooking Aristotle’s professed opinion that a gift for metaphor is something that cannot be taught, we might assume that if it is indeed something that can be cultivated, a likely starting point is through the reading and writing of poetry.  It would be a pleasant change if in looking over technical resumes, we also starting looking for signs that prospective employees to also were published in poetry journals or participated in local poetry readings.

But perhaps that is asking for too much.  The only other profession in which metaphors are applied extensively is in politics.  Just as metaphors are called abstractions in programming, in politics they are called “framing”.  Behind the notion of framing in politics is the assumption that certain metaphors are simply more naturally appealing than others.  The proper metaphor will motivate one’s audiences emotions either toward one’s platform or against one’s opponents platform.  The mastery of metaphor in politics, consequently, entails being able to associate one’s own position with the most emotively powerful metaphor into which one can fit one’s position. 

One interesting aspect of the endeavor of framing is that a political metaphor is required to be fitting, that is the metaphor one uses to explain a given position or argument must be appropriate to that argument, and an absence of fitting will generally detract from the force of the metaphor.  That there is this question of fittingness provides two ways to characterize political metaphors.  There are metaphors that seem to naturally apply to a given circumstance, and hence garner for the person who comes up with such metaphors a reputation for vision and articulateness.  Then there are metaphors that are so powerful that it does not matter so much that the circumstance to which it is applied is not so fitting, in which case the person who comes up with such metaphors gains a reputation as a scheming framer.

Determining which is which, of course, generally depends on where one is standing, and in either case we can say that both are masters of metaphor in Aristotle’s sense.  However, because there is so much question about the integrity of metaphors in politics, it is tempting to eschew the whole thing.  As wonderful as metaphors are, politics tends to make everything dirty in the end.

Which leaves software programming as the only place where metaphors can be studied and applied in a disinterested manner.  In programming, the main purpose of our abstractions is not to move people’s emotions, but rather to clarify concepts, spread comprehension and make things work better.  It is the natural home not only for mathematicians, but for poets.

Giulio Camillo, father of the Personal Computer

I am not the first to suggest it, but I will add my voice to those that want to claim that Giulio Camillo built the precursor of the modern personal computer in the 16th century.  Claiming that anyone invented anything is always a precarious venture, and it can be instructive to question the motives of such attempts.  For instance, trying to determine whether Newton or Leibniz invented calculus is a simple question of who most deserves credit for this remarkable achievement. 

Sometimes the question of firsts is intended to reveal something that we did not know before, such as Harold Bloom’s suggestion that Shakespeare invented the idea of personality as we know it.  In making the claim, Bloom at the same time makes us aware of the possibility that personality is not in fact something innate, but something created.  Edmund Husserl turns this notion on its head a bit with his reference in his writings to the Thales of Geometry.  Geometry, unlike the notion of personality, cannot be so easily reduced to an invention, since it is eidetic in nature.  It is always true, whether anyone understands geometry or not.  And so there is a certain irony in holding Thales to be the originator of Geometry since Geometry is a science that was not and could not have been invented as such.  Similarly, each of us, when we discover the truths of geometry for ourselves, becomes in a way a new Thales of Geometry, having made the same observations and realizations for which Thales receives credit. 

Sometimes the recognition of firstness is a way of initiating people into a secret society.  Such, it struck me, was the case when I read as a teenager from Stephen J. Gould that Darwin was not the first person to discover the evolutionary process, but that it was in fact another naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, and suddenly a centuries long conspiracy to steal credit from the truly deserving Wallace was revealed to me — or so it had seemed at the time. 

Origins play a strange role in etymological considerations, and when we read Aristotle’s etymological ruminations, there is certainly a sense that the first meaning of a word will somehow provide the key to understanding the concepts signified by the word.  There is a similar intuition at work in the discusions of ‘natural man’ to be found in the political writings of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.  For each, the character of the natural man determines the nature of the state, and consequently how we are to understand it best.  For Hobbes, famously, the life of this kind of man is rather unpleasant.  For Locke, the natural man is typified by his rationality.  For Rousseau, by his freedom.  In each case, the character of the ‘natural man’ serves as a sort of gravitational center for understanding man and his works at any time. I have often wondered whether the discussions of the state of the natural man were intended as a scientific deduction or rather merely as a metaphor for each of these great political philosophers.  I lean toward the latter opinion, in which case another way to understand firsts is not as an attempt to achieve historical accuracy, but rather an attempt to find the proper metaphor for something modern.

So who invented the computer?  Was it Charles Babbage with his Difference Engine in the 19th century, or Alan Turing in the 20th with his template for the Universal Machine?  Or was it Ada Lovelace, as some have suggested, the daughter of Lord Byron and collaborator with Charles Babbage who possibly did all the work while Babbage receives all the credit?

My question is a simpler one: who invented the personal computer, Steve Jobs or Giulio Camillo.  I award the laurel to the Camillo, who was known in his own time as the Divine Camillo because of the remarkable nature of his invention.  And in doing so, of course, I merely am attempting to define what the personal computer really is — the gravitational center that is the role of the personal computer in our lives.

Giulio Camillo spent long years working on his Memory Theater, a miniaturized Vitruvian theater still big enough to walk into, basically a box, that would provide the person who stood before it the gift most prized by Renaissance thinkers: the eloquence of Cicero.  The theater itself was arranged with images and figures from greek and roman mythology.  Throughout it were Christian references intermixed with Hermetic and Kabalistic symbols.  In small boxes beneath various statues inside the theater fragments and adaptations of Cicero’s writings could be pulled out and examined.  Through the proper physical arrangment of the fantastic, the mythological, the philosophical and the occult, Camillo sought to provide a way for anyone who stepped before his theater be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently and eloquently than Cicero himself.

Eloquence in the 16th century was understood as not only the ability of the lawyer or statesman to speak persuasively, but also the ability to evoke beautiful and accurate metaphors, the knack for delighting an audience, the ability to instruct, and mastery of diverse subjects that could be brought forth from the memory in order to enlighten one’s listeners.  Already in Camillo’s time, mass production of books was coming into its own and creating a transformation of culture.  Along with it, the ancient arts of memory and of eloquence (by way of analogy we might call it literacy, today), whose paragon was recognized to be Cicero, was in its decline.  Thus Camillo came along at the end of this long tradition of eloquence to invent a box that would capture all that was best of the old world that was quickly disappearing.  He created, in effect, an artificial memory that anyone could use, simply by stepping before it, to invigorate himself with the accumulated eloquence of all previous generations.

And this is how I think of the personal computer.  It is a box, occult in nature, that provides us with an artificial memory to make us better than we are, better than nature made us.  Nature distributes her gifts randomly, while the personal computer corrects that inherent injustice.  The only limitation to the personal computer, as I see it, is that it can only be a repository for all the knowledge humanity has already acquired.  It cannot generate anything new, as such.  It is a library and not a university.

Which is where the internet comes in.  The personal computer, once it is attached to the world wide web, becomes invigorated by the chaos and serendipity that is the internet.  Not only do we have the dangerous chaos of viruses and trojan horses, but also the positive chaos of online discussions, the putting on of masks and mixing with the online personas of others, the random following of links across the internet that ultimately leads us to make new connections between disparate concepts in ways that seem natural and inevitable.

This leads me to the final connection I want to make in my overburdened analogy.  Just as the personal computer is not merely a box, but also a doorway to the internet, so Giulio Camillo’s Theater of Memory was tied to a Neoplatonic worldview in which the idols of the theater, if arranged properly and fittingly, could draw down the influences of the intelligences, divine beings known variously as the planets (Mars, Venus, etc.), the Sephiroth, or the Archangels.  By standing before Camillo’s box, the spectator was immediately plugged into these forces, the consequences of which are difficult to assess.  There is danger, but also much wonder, to be found on the internet.

Where to Begin?


But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows; and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations, or civil world, which, since men had made it, men could come to know. This aberration was a consequence of that infirmity of the human mind by which, immersed and buried in the body, it naturally inclines to take notice of bodily things, and finds the effort to attend to itself too laborious; just as the bodily eye sees all objects outside itself but needs a mirror to see itself. — Giambattista Vico, The New Science