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tinderbox
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On the evolution of libraries
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Lately, I've been pondering on the problems of library evolution. At one extreme of library creation is the put-it-all-in-here. At the other is the carve-nature-at-its-joints and have lots of dependencies. Philosophically, I tend towards the latter because shared code sucks (do it once, do it right) but it leaves one with an icky library management problem.

Then there's the issue of what to do with patches and additions? If a maintainer exists, patches and additions can pass through them. If there isn't a maintainer or if they find the changes don't fit with their vision of the library, then what happens? One can create a fork -- but that adds another library that may have issues working with the pre-fork version and it raises the code duplication issue in spades. One can also create another library that depends on the original... now we just have the yet-another-library problem.

It's interesting that we're culturally willing to create websites as wikis and are finding ways to deal with the problems of attribution and controversy. What would happen if we had a code wiki where everyone could edit everything. It's a scary thought because it takes so little to make code fail and because a little code can do a lot of damage very quickly (the software fault travels around the world before the patch gets out of bed or something...). Rambling on, this makes me think of the difference between syntax and semantics: word wikis work pretty well because they use language to pass around semantic knowledge and humans are remarkably good at dealing with faults. Code webs deal only in syntax and computers are almost unbearably brittle. The magic of computing, as my PhD advisor liked to say, is that it performs semantic transformations using only syntax. The problem is that the semantics all comes from the programmer. So what sort of infrastructures would make a code wiki possible?


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