Clarification Regarding Graphical Programming’s Potential

After posting my previous post, I submitted it to Hacker News, and, while I slept, it hit the front page. As is to be expected after about 10,000 views, there was a lot of feedback, mostly constructive. A couple of points recurred, and I’d like to address them here.

Show Me the Code

This is the easiest: I’m working on it. I’ve got a few thousand lines of Racket to show that I’m serious about this. I plan to release this, but I’ll warn you, it’ll probably be a few months before that happens. I plan to continue blogging and laying out my philosophy, and I may post some screenshots, but I’m going to spend most of my time wrestling the code into something useful.

<Insert Graphical Programming System> Is Awful, Ergo Graphical Programming Is Awful

I acknowledge that graphical programming, in its present state, is not good. In particular, it’s significantly worse than textual programming. That’s exactly my point. I think there’s a lot of improvement that can be made here. Graphical programming has (with a few exceptions) failed. My goal is to change that.

The argument that “textual programming is better than graphical programming in their present forms” is not an argument that textual programming is better than graphical programming. When deciding to work on something like this, you don’t ask whether TP is better than GP right now, you ask whether GP has the potential to be better than TP. My hypothesis is that it does.

The Mouse Is Awful, Ergo Graphical Programming Is Awful

I agree that the mouse is used way too much in user-oriented software. But graphical programming does not have to mean using the mouse. It’s true that those have been used together for much of their combined history, but it’s not because the one inherently depends on the other. In my system, the mouse is purely optional; indeed, most of the important interactions can only be accessed by the keyboard.

On the flip side, some may argue that this makes it not very user-friendly. I’m not trying to make it easier to learn programming, and I’m not trying to get non-programmers to start programming. I’m trying to make the everyday life of the developer easier. If a system is such that many of the interactions will be brief, it may be important to make it intuitive and obvious. If a system is such that many users will spend hours every day working with it, the “activation energy” is not terribly important, since it will be dwarfed by the later productivity. Think asymptotic complexity. When n is small, the constants are important; when n is large, the constants don’t make that much of a difference. That’s why vim is not “user-friendly”, but is still commonly by programmers. For people for whom editing text is a significant part of their life, it’s a lot more important that the text editor be powerful and efficient than that it be easy to learn.

I Want a Neural Interface (Or at Least Natural Language)

I hope we move beyond both textual and graphical programming. But it’s going to take a while. I think graphical programming is within the limits of our technology, so I’m going to try to make that. Waiting for the technology to get good enough for a neural interface is not productive. If I had the scientific and background required to help with the research required to implement a neural interface, I would. But I don’t, so I figure I’ll do the best I can with what we’ve got.

Incidentally, regarding natural language, I disagree with (what appears to be) the general consensus that this is a better way to interact with the computer than what we have presently. There are certainly some cases where it would be useful (typing this blog post, for example). But English is not a technical or precise language. English has been optimized for interpersonal communication and relations, and it does a pretty decent job at that. English is not good for describing stuff on a technical level. If I were able to speak to a computer, I would want to be able to use a language specifically designed for being able to speak technically. It might take some time for me to learn, but I think it’d be better than the machine trying to assign meaning to my English statements. Most of what we say in English is not just hard to assign a technical meaning to — it may not have a technical meaning. When telling a computer what to do, I want to actually be able to communicate exactly what I want.

Conclusion

Thank you guys for the constructive criticism and the links to other projects. I do want to be able to give a well-reasoned response to possible issues with my hypothesis, so any criticism is welcome. If I missed an important point, let me know.

For the near future, I’ll continue blogging about my ideas and working on the code. Eventually, I’ll release, and then it’ll probably make a lot more sense.

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