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Quantifiably Simple

I'm right. You're wrong. Conversations between programmers often sound like this. Being right is very important to most people. Even when we agree to disagree, it is more like a temporary ceasefire than true peace treaty.

Programmer interactions are fraught. We are not taught how to communicate in school, or even in most homes. I think there are two problems: emotional immaturity and unscientific frameworks. This article covers the latter. I will let you work out how to become more emotionally mature on your own.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper uses falsifiability as a means to separate science from meta-physics, or in philosophical circles, what is known as the Demarcation Problem. Many people disagree with Popper, and I am not going to justify or criticize his general conceptional framework as it applies to the physical world. I am a programmer, not a philosopher. I think Popper's ideas about falsifiabilityare extremely relevant to what I do every day. Falsifiability goes by many names, and in programming, we use the word testability.

I am talking about testability (falsifiability) of ideas, which is not the same thing as software testing. Ideas are not executable, and code and tests are. My other articles about testingfocus on the process and psychology around the tests themselves. In this article I discuss how testable an idea is. In particular I will rely on Popper's result that the degree of testability can be used to define simplicity, and therefore testability is a way to frame programming discussions to improve objectivity and collaboration.

At bivio we want to work collaboratively. We share a single office (bullpen) and share a large common software framework (bOP). Sharing code and office space is not enough, however. We get as tripped up as other programmers when it comes to discussions about tough issues, especially when they involve conflicting experience. I believe that the crux of the problem lies in Extreme Programming's (XP) tenet: do the simplest thing that could possibly work (DTSTTCPW).

DTSTTCPW is also known as "keep it simple, stupid" (KISS). Or, as Einstein put it, "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler". Great advice as long as we can agree on what it means for something to be simple. If we adopt Popper's result that simplicity and falsifiability are equatable, our programming discussions can be built on a solid foundation. This is why I like the idea of Popperian Programming.

There is a strong relationship between Extreme Programming and Popperian Programming. Another XP tenet is once and only once (OAOO), which is another form of simplicity in programs. The interesting thing about OAOO is that it is well-defined. If you can see duplication, it is not OAOO. The test (refutation) for one OAOO is important, or programmers might loop forever trying to remove duplication in their code -- and some programmers do!

This asymmetry around refutability between OAOO and DTSTTCPW has always bothered me. It is one of the reasons why I disagree with quality as one of the Four Variables of XP. To me quality is not knowable. We only know it when we see it, and two people's definition of quality is never the same. The rest of the Four Variables (scope, time, and resources) are quantifiable, or knowable in the limited Popperian universe of programming.

In my version of XP, I use Risk as the Fourth Variable, because it is knowable. In Popperian terms, risk is simply the quantification of all possible tests (refutations, falsifications) of a program, or concept to be programmed. Neither Popper nor I say you can prove anything about the existence or completeness of refutations. Rather, if you are going to have a discussion about risk (or its subjective counterpart: quality), you need to be able to define it in concrete terms, or tests. In programming, a test is an absolute yes/no (pass/fail, true/false) question you ask of a program.

The advantage programmers have over philosophers is that our tests are executable. That's why I am a programmer; it is natural for me to want to know an exact answer. Uncertainty is not a happy place for me -- but I am learning to live with it! Other sciences do not have that luxury, because the relate to the universe. The programming language we use defines our universe, and is absolutely computable for the vast majority of tests we think up. This is the trait is what allows me to believe that simplicity about programs is also knowable.

When we (my fellow bivions and I) define a programming idea's simplicity as the degree of falsifiability, we have an absolute test for what it means to be simple. We tried this the other day, and the results were extremely interesting: my brilliant idea was refuted. More important, I was excited that we found a refutation! Instead of the discussion wandering between boxes and lines and other whiteboard scribbles, we focused on listing all the possible refutations for the idea. (A practical example would be good at this point, but I couldn't think of one that was practical in the context of this article -- suggestions welcome!)

The other nice thing about listing refutations about an idea is that the work is always useful. It is just like test-driven development: the tests are probably the most valuable part of the code base, because tests are an executable specification for the program. If a test identifies a defect in the program, we can either repair the program, or, more boldly, throw out the whole program and start over. While the former is much preferrable to the latter, both are inconsequential in comparison to the executable knowledge embodied in the test suite.

The same is true for refutations about programming ideas. When a discussion group can agree on a valid refutation, it can be applied over and over again to new ideas. Just as tests reduce our fears around coding, refutations free us from fear when brainstorming!

By the way, falsifiability is a very old idea. The Logic of Scientific Discovery was first published in 1934. When I started writing this, I thought this was an original idea. Fortunately, there are many refutations to this statement:

Via Rob 4/2/2008