Sunday, February 21, 2010

Half a Century of Crappy Computing (repost)

(Note: I am still in my bash-computer-scientists mode. See my previous post. This article was originally posted in October 2007.)

Decades of Deception and Disillusion

I remember being elated back in the early 80s when event-driven programming became popular. At the time, I took it as a hopeful sign that the computer industry was finally beginning to see the light and that it would not be long before pure event-driven, reactive programming was embraced as the universal programming model. Boy, was I wrong! I totally underestimated the capacity of computer geeks to deceive themselves and everyone else around them about their business. Instead of asynchronous events and signals, we got more synchronous function calls; and instead of elementary reactions, we got more functions and methods. The unified approach to software construction that I was eagerly hoping for never materialized. In its place, we got inundated with a flood of hopelessly flawed programming languages, operating systems and processor architectures, a sure sign of an immature discipline.

The Geek Pantheon

Not once did anybody in academia stop to consider that the 150-year-old algorithmic approach to computing might be flawed. On the contrary, they loved it. Academics like Fred Brooks decreed to the world that the reliability problem is unsolvable and everybody worshipped the ground he walked on. Alan Turing was elevated to the status of a deity and the Turing machine became the de facto computing model. As a result, the true nature of computing has remained hidden from generations of programmers and processor architects. Unreliable software was accepted as the norm. Needless to say, with all this crap going on, I quickly became disillusioned with computer science. I knew instinctively what had to be done but the industry was and still is under the firm political control of a bunch of old computer geeks. And, as we all know, computer geeks believe and have managed to convince everyone that they are the smartest human beings on earth. Their wisdom and knowledge must not be questioned. The price [pdf], of course, has been staggering.

In Their Faces

What really bothers me about computer scientists is that the solution to the parallel programming and reliability problems has been in their faces from the beginning. We have been using it to emulate parallelism in such applications as neural networks, cellular automata, simulations, VHDL, Verilog, video games, etc. It is a change-based or event-driven model. Essentially, you have a global loop and two buffers (A and B) that are used to contain the objects to be processed in parallel. While one buffer (A) is being processed, the other buffer (B) is filled with the objects that will be processed in the next cycle. As soon as all the objects in buffer A are processed, the two buffers are swapped and the cycle repeats. Two buffers are used in order to prevent the signal racing conditions that would otherwise occur. Notice that there is no need for threads, which means that all the problems normally associated with thread-based programming are non-existent. What could be simpler? Unfortunately, all the brilliant computer savants in academia and industry were and still are collectively blind to it. How could they not? They are all busy studying the subtleties of Universal Turing Machines and comparing notes.

We Must Reinvent the Computer

I am what you would call a purist when it come to event-driven programming. In my opinion, everything that happens in a computer program should be event-driven, down to the instruction level. This is absolutely essential to reliability because it makes it possible to globally enforce temporal determinism. As seen above, simulating parallelism with a single-core processor is not rocket science. What needs to be done is to apply this model down to the individual instruction level. Unfortunately, programs would be too slow at that level because current processors are designed for the algorithmic model. This means that we must reinvent the computer. We must design new single and multiple-core Processor architectures to directly emulate fine-grained parallelism. There is no getting around it.

Easy to Program and Understand

A pure event-driven software model lends itself well to fine-grain parallelism and graphical programming. The reason is that an event is really a signal that travels from one object to another. As every logic circuit designer knows, diagrams are ideally suited to the depiction of signal flow between objects. Diagrams are much easier to understand than textual code, especially when the code is spread across multiple pages. Here is a graphical example of a fine-grained parallel component (see Software Composition in COSA for more info):

Computer geeks often write to argue that it is easier and faster to write keywords like ‘while’, ‘+’, ‘-‘ and ‘=’ than it is to click and drag an icon. To that I say, phooey! The real beauty of event-driven reactive programming is that it makes it easy to create and use plug-compatible components. Once you’ve build a comprehensive collection of low-level components, then there is no longer a need to create new ones. Programming will quickly become entirely high-level and all programs will be built entirely from existing components. Just drag’m and drop’m. This is the reason that I have been saying that Jeff Han’s multi-touch screen interface technology will play a major role in the future of parallel programming. Programming for the masses!

Too Many Ass Kissers

I often wondered what it will take to put an end to decades of crappy computing. Reason and logic do not seem to be sufficient. I now realize that the answer is quite simple. Most people are followers, or more accurately, to use the vernacular, they are ass kissers. They never question authority. They just want to belong in the group. What it will take to change computing, in my opinion, is for an intelligent and capable minority to stop kissing ass and do the right thing. That is all. In this light, I am reminded of the following quote attributed to Mark Twain:

“Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

To that I would add that it is also time to ask oneself, why am I kissing somebody's ass just because everybody else is doing it? My point here is that there are just too many gutless ass kissers in the geek community. What the computer industry needs is a few people with backbones. As always, I tell it like I see it.

See Also:

Computer Scientists Suck
How to Solve the Parallel Programming Crisis
Parallel Computing: Why the Future Is Non-Algorithmic
The Age of Crappy Concurrency: Erlang, Tilera, Intel, AMD, IBM, Freescale, etc...

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