[Baypiggies] Baypiggies Meeting Tonight @LinkedIn - "Good enough" is good enough! by Alex Martelli

John Wegis jwegis at gmail.com
Thu Oct 24 21:29:48 CEST 2013

Hello Everyone,

Tonight's presentation will be "Good enough" is good enough! by Alex

The meeting will begin at 7:30PM and the presentation will commence at
7:40PM after the usual announcements. See: www.baypiggies.net for more

*LinkedIn Corporation
2061 Stierlin Ct (aka Bldg 6)
Room - Neon Carrot
Mountain View, CA 94043*
Our culture's default assumption is that everybody should always be
striving for perfection -- settling for anything less is seen as a
regrettable compromise. This is wrong in most software development
situations: focus instead on keeping the software simple, just "good
enough", launch it early, and iteratively improve, enhance, and re-factor
it. This is how software success is achieved!

In a 1989 keynote speech at a Lisp conference, Richard Gabriel had a "light
relief" section where he caricatured a SW development approach he called
"worse is better" (AKA "New Jersey approach") and contrasted it with what
he called "the right thing" (AKA "MIT/Stanford approach")... and despite
the caricatural aspects reluctantly concluded that NJ was the most viable
approach, identifying several of the actual reasons (speed of development,
less monolithic designs, systems more easily adaptable to a variety of uses
[including changes in the underlying requirements], ease of gradual
incremental improvement over time, ...).
The debate hasn't died down since (Gabriel himself contributing richly to
both sides (!), sometimes under the pseudonym "Nickieben Bourbaki"). My
favorite Gabriel quote is "The right-thing philosophy is based on letting
the experts do their expert thing all the way to the end before users get
their hands on it [snip] Worse-is-better takes advantage of the natural
advantages of incremental development. Incremental improvement satisfies
some human needs".

However, while the debate is still raging, reality has steadily been
shifting away from "the right thing" (inherently "Cathedral"-centralized,
with "Big Design Up Front" a must, conceived with academia and large firms
in mind, and quite unsuited to always-shifting real-world requirements) and
towards "the NJ approach" (suited to "Bazaar"-like structures, agile and
iterative enhancement, dynamic start-ups and independent developers, in a
world of always-shifting specs).

In this talk, I come down strongly on the side of "the NJ approach",
illustrating it and defending it on both philosophical and pragmatical

I draw technical examples from several areas where the systems that won the
"mind-share battles" did so by focusing on pragmatic simplicity ("good
enough") to the expense of theoretical refinement and completeness (the
quest for elusive perfection), leading to large ecosystems of developers
bent on incremental improvement -- the TCP/IP approach to networking
contrasted with ISO/OSI, the HTTP/HTML approach to hypertext contrasted
with Xanadu, early Unix's simplistic (but OK) approach to interrupted
system calls versus Multic's and ITS's perfectionism.

Within Python, I show how metaclasses' quest for completeness yielded
excessive complexity (and 80% of their intended uses can now be obtained
via class decorators for 20% of the complexity), and how well incremental
improvement worked instead in areas such as sorting, generators, and
"guaranteed"-finalization semantics.

The talk is not about lowering expectations: our dreams must stay big,
bigger than we can achieve. It's about the best practical track towards
making such dreams reality -- think grandiose, act humble. "Rightly traced
and well ordered: what of that? // Speak as they please, what does the
mountain care? // Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp // Or
what's a heaven for? All's silver-grey // Placid and perfect with my art:
the worse!"

This talk is probably not perfect, but I do think it's good enough.

Author of "Python in a Nutshell", co-author of "Python Cookbook", frequent
speaker at Python conferences, once-prolific contributor to StackOverflow,
and recipient of the 2006 Frank Willison Memorial Award for contributions
to Python, Alex currently works as Senior Staff Engineer at Google.

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