10.0493 (a)esthetics of programming

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 4 Dec 1996 20:50:48 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 493.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Jim Marchand <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu> (43)
Subject: esthetics?

When it comes to aesthetics and the computer, there are more things there,
Horatio, than one can imagine. I popped in my handy ComputerSelect CD-ROM,
for example, and found that esthetics had only four hits; changing to
aesthetics, however, led to more than forty. Few of them had to do with
esthetics; most were on feeding ones prejudices as to platform, layout, look
and feel, etc., and one was on having to give up C++ (did not live up to its
promise, is clunky) in favor of JAVA. We need to break up our discussion
into 1. the computer as esthetic object (I love the new curved keyboards; why
don't we get rid of those ugly function keys, etc.; many of these are on
ergonomics rather than esthetics). 2. The esthetics of the computer per se
and the philosophy of bi-valued systems, bayesian probabilities, the whole
nine yards. 3. The esthetics of the computer language one is fondest of,
always better than the others; Marchandian BASIC just feels good, has a
certain je ne sais quoi, etc. 4. The esthetics of the art object produced by
the computer itself (I cannot stand sans-serif, it's so gauche; what an ugly
screen; why don't they provide for more colors and better fonts?). 5. The
esthetics of programming (I cannot abide go-to's, can you? C++ inhibits your
creative instincts. 6. The esthetics of the program (BASIC, with all those
numbers? Yech! Once you do one of those C++ things, even if you document
(computerese for annotate) well, you can never read it again).
I go back to the days before languages, even to the days when one had to
slap switches, so I remember the good old days (of Eliza and the like) when
esthetics in programming meant parsimony or at best elegance. If my program
required less space than yours and did roughly the same thing, mine was
better than yours. Then came the days in which one could get a program which
would `pretty print' your program. If you wrote in BASIC, the indentation
did not usually reflect your hierarchy (programs were and still are
hierarchical). There was an insistence from some quarters on having all your
declarations, even in BASIC, first in the program. There were a number of
books and articles written on `programming style', mostly on avoiding go-to's
and loops and being economical.
When I program nowadays, and I do a good deal of it, all that is out the
window. With the monsters we have nowadays, memory/storage presents no
problem. If I need something to do something, I just steal a module from
somewhere; I am even encouraged to do so. As Weizenbaum pointed out lo those
many years ago, I half the time do not know what goes on in the black box of
the module, but what the hey? No need to reinvent the wheel. Since I am
using someone else's art object, I cannot be accused of bad esthetics.
Programming nowadays in folk art.
I just had an article published entitled: "The Computer in the Humanities
-- Friend or Foe?" I am still not sure which it is, but I am committed.
Jim Marchand.