Friday, September 8, 2006

Thinking mathematics, acting art.

It was 1983 when the movie WarGames came out. It was that movie, believe it or not, that fascinated me to the point of changing and shaping my life forever. If you watch the movie today you’d find it cheesy and almost embarrassing, but at the time, when I was 11, it completely captivated me.

Around that time my aunt was buying an encyclopedia. As gift from the publisher she received a small home computer, which was quiet fashionable in the mid ‘80s. It was an Acquarious, one of these many unknown failed attempts that never made it big. A home-computer with rubber keys, an overheating problem and a cassette player as a storage device; one of these unfortunate competitors of the Commodore C64, that at the time dominated the low-budget computer market.

Since my aunt was (and still is) completely unable to deal with technology, she gave it to me. I was 12, and that cheap cheesy machine started it all. I skipped the stupid little games that came with it, and started learning the simple Basic Language of the built-in interpreter. Almost immediately I decided that Basic was not enough for anything serious, and I started studying and coding with Assembly. On home computers in that era you would typically code in assembly with a bunch of "poke", "peek" and "data" Basic instructions that would load the machine codes directly into memory for execution. Scary, but it worked.

Not long after that I purchased a used Commodore Plus4, which was a heck of a lot more powerful and fun to use. It came with a word processor and a spreadsheet built in, and an excellent Basic interpreter. Painfully saving money week by week, I bought a 5" disk drive, and kept coding away in Basic and Assembly. Eventually I moved to an Amiga 1000 (which I hated), and not long after to a IBM 8088. From there I kept upgrading with the various INTEL chip generations (V20, 8086, 286, 386, 486, Pentium, etc...). I worked on a first software development project for a customer when I was 14, in order to raise some cash to buy new and better technology (and go to movies and have fun), and never stopped since.

Well, to make a long story short I have been writing software everyday for well over 20 years now, and I grew up coding.

Probably due to this growth so close to technology, I felt at times that I lived in a world that was border-line with mathematics and perfect sciences. I often wrongly assumed that there was always a best way to solve any solvable problem and that it was always possible to identify not solvable problems and work around them with approximations. This sometimes led me to assume that we live in a time where science can find answers to most problems.

Well, I am changing.

I experience everyday that trying to find the perfect answer or ideal solution is impractical and unnecessary. The more I mature in age and experience, the more I realize that practical and achievable solutions are often found thanks to the experience and intuition of the engineers, and not thanks to some well known procedure that can be efficiently thought to others. For this reason, in general, the more experienced an engineer is, the better the solutions are and the quicker they come to be.

This makes software engineering more a form of art than a perfect science. Even if the basis of engineering is in well defined theory and theorems that have been proven mathematically, the success of the application of such theory and theorems in the real world is completely reliant on the skills of the people that do the work. No book can teach you how to apply theorems and theory, no book can truly and practically teach you when to pick an algorithm instead of another. Books and theories can give you an idea, but the efficient and practical application is really a form of art and a product of intuition. Almost a trade.

In this context, I define "art" as the application of procedures and theories based on experience and the artist unique perception of the world, to solve practical problems in a universe governed by laws that we don’t completely understand.

I am always amazed when I realize how much art is involved in any engineering filed, and how much engineering and science is necessary in any art field. For example a painter or a sculptor that wants to excel in the painting or sculpting of the human body, needs to study human anatomy in details and became an expert in the functioning and interactions of the body muscles and bones. Only doing so gives the artist enough knowledge to be able to visually recreate something that is close enough to reality to be considered pleasant and just right to human perception. Leonardo da Vinci knew this. Given that not much material was available he did first-hand research on human anatomy, risking his life and reputation in the process.

On the other hand, the practical application of medicine and surgery is so much based on art, steady hands, intuition and experience that is barely a science. Yes, true, surgeons need to be trained and know the theory very well, but the actual application of the theory and the process of performing a surgery is really a form of art that is susceptible to human error and miss-interpretation of cause and effects. Much like sculpting and painting! Also, a good doctor or a good surgeon is usually able to create a trust and a connection with the patient, which improves the success rate of medical treatments and surgery. This makes doctors very close to artists, in the sense that they are able to direct human perception in a particular direction, beneficial to the achievement of the end-goal.

I am always amazed that engineering and trades, science and art, mathematics and intuition, are so close in nature, if not one and the same, with a different accent and presumptions.

1 comment:

Gianni Coni said...

Mai ho letto niente di più vero e condivisibile, la tua vita e la tua evoluzione professionale, come l'hai illustrata, rappresentano la capacità di un soggetto di inteffacciarsi a quello che succede intorno a se in maniera fantasiosa, curiosa e critica fin da bambino. Non credo che sia un film a cambiare la vita di un soggetto,ma la capacità del soggetto medesimo di recepire quel film. Quanti avranno visto quel film e saranno rimasti inermi, "spalmati" su un divano magari con una piccola punta di noia, tu invece hai costruito un'idea, diciamo pure una filosofia di vita che ti ha portato a sviluppare le tue capacità nel mondo informatico.
Ti saluto e colgo l'occasione per farti gli auguri a te e famiglia di un felice e proficuo 2009
Gianni