Monday, May 3, 2010


Every now and then I run into ‘quasi-cranks’ in the computer industry. These people don't fit the mold of the standard crank. For instance, they often appear reasonably normal (although in this field, there is more than the usual amount of latitude for ‘normal’), they generally don't rant unless you specifically mention certain trigger words, and they seem to have successful computer careers. But when you start talking about technical details, you realize that these people are profoundly confused.

I often help people debug their code. Most of the time I can follow what they're thinking and how the code is structured. Every now and then, though, I'll come across someone that has some insane hairball of code. They'll point out the location where the error is raised and explain what the intended behavior is. (I don't know why they insist on telling me this. If the code behaved the way it was intended, there wouldn't be an error.) I listen patiently and then ask them what the code actually did, and then try to understand where the reasoning went wrong. It's at this point I get the first inklings of weirdness. I'll find out that what they want to do is fairly simple, but that the error is bizarre. For example, they'll say they want to look something up in a table, but the error message is something like Error: Variable reference to syntactic keyword.

Now this can go one of three ways. The best is when I ask them if they're doing something weird and they sheepishly admit “Yeah, I thought I could model this with a first-class environment... I guess I should use a hash table.” These people have a future in computers. They're exploring.

Second best is when they say “I'm using a first-class environment to hold my lookup table.” and when I suggest some more conventional mechanism they assert “No, I need to be able to call eval.” and it turns out they have some hair-brained idea that kinda sounds plausible, but won't work in practice. These people can make a living in computers, but they need a structured environment.

Then there are the third type of people. When you look at the hairball of code you see a bunch of things that make no sense at all: continuations that are captured, but not bound to a variable, spurious data structure copying, strange and unexpected variable names, checks for errors that cannot logically occur, etc. If you ask them what they are doing, they'll say something like “I have to eval the current continuation on the stack.” or “That forces the oldspace to swap.” If you try to encourage them to try a standard approach they explain “Look, this code pushes a binding on the continuation and I need to find a way to remove it. The error message is because the garbage collector is evaluating the wrong binding. If I could remove the binding here, then the collector will see the correct binding here.”

The first couple of times I ran into people like this I tried to nudge them in the right direction. It doesn't work. People like this are profoundly confused. I'm not sure what they are doing. They think they are programming, but the logic is unrelated to any model of programming I am familiar with. I'll usually feign ignorance and suggest some debugging tool or something. (Sometimes they'll come back with a ‘solution’ to their bug: “Oh yeah, it was easy, I just pushed a second null on the continuation.”)

You can tell these quasi-cranks from the way they use computer jargon and terminology. They “misunderstand or fail to use standard notation and terminology,” and “ignore fine distinctions which are essential to correctly understand mainstream belief.” (as per the Wikipedia article). But it astounds me that some of these people seem to have careers as programmers despite their confusion.


Dan said...

Those people are so entertaining. I've known a few as well. I don't call them quasi-cranks though, I've dubbed them Dogberry's -- because they make about as much sense as that Shakespearean character.


Unknown said...

... and they say things like:

"You've got to be kidding me. I've been further even more decided to use even go need to do look more as anyone can. Can you really be far even as decided half as much to use go wish for that? My guess is that when one really been far even as decided once to use even go want, it is then that he has really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like. It's just common sense."

Chris D said...

I'm sorry...what kind of charmed unicorn career have you had that you haven't had to work with the same lunatic idiots as the rest of us? Maybe it's your field; in most of software development, these people are not rare.