[Beowulf] While the knives are out... Wulf Keepers

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Mon Aug 21 22:29:25 PDT 2006

On Tue, 22 Aug 2006, Mark Hahn wrote:

> it's good to minimize the friction encountered when performing some task;
> it's NOT true that the only or best way to do that is by dumbing it down.
> every bit of dumbing makes the system less versatile.  and the dumbing is not 
> the goal - this is what is too often forgotten in UI design.

Or to recall an ancient quote regarding the venerable Macintosh, as true
today as it was the day it was coined:  "You can learn to use a Mac in a
day, and then pay for that knowledge for the rest of all time."

Any numb-nut can learn to move or copy files with a mouse and some sort
of iconic drag-n-drop view of some small portion of their filespace.

Try to take all the files in your directory tree that are older than
three weeks and match *.bak and delete them -- with your mouse.  You can
do it iff somebody hat actually has a versatile, complex, difficult
interface to work with and has MASTERED it encapsulates all the work for
doing this task and presents it to your mouse as a "delete all .bak
files over three weeks old" function, executable with a click.

Make it complex enough to handle files with different endings, different
deletion ages, arbitrary matchable patterns inside the rest of the
filename, and that doesn't actually delete the files but simply "moves
them to the trash" because now the tool is terribly dangerous and your
"simple" UI is now too complex for dummies to learn -- and still not
anywhere NEAR as general as what one can do with just a rudimentary
understanding of standard unix commands, for loops, regular expressions
or even just globs, and pipelines of tools such as sed in bash.

Knowledge of the latter isn't cheaply bought, but the power it gives you
is nontrivial and it makes life interesting.  Would the world be a
better place if all streets were laid out in an absolutely regular
rectangular grid with absolute addressing and labelling in terms of
latitude and longitude?  No street names, only absolute reference
numbers.  Directions to anyplace in the world now consisting of "Go
132045 blocks East, turn left/North, then go 8937 blocks" or equivalent?
Even complete idiots could then find places, right?  Cars could be made
with a point and click interface too!

> this is why the gradual improvements made to C and Fortran have helped those 
> languages stay relevant.  yes, both lack the nicer syntactic sugar
> for structuring provided by C++ or Java, but then again, sugar is just empty 
> calories.  they don't change the expressive power, though they may
> alter how easily a novice  can pick up the language and do something.
> an expert will be able to do the same stuff in any language - often better in 
> a "low level" one, just as an expert can make a manual car drive
> better than an automatic.

Oh yeah!

> fundamentally, we tell users that their main time-consuming loops need to be 
> in efficient compiled languages, preferably in highly tuned libraries like
> ACML.  what kind of duct tape they use on the outside is pretty much a matter
> of taste.  (we have a population of users who have "gratuitously MPI" codes -
> embarassingly parallel codes, often montecarlo, which are treated as MPI
> simply to reduce book-keeping.  we're trying to figure out how to offer
> better duct tape so they can submit these jobs honestly (as serial jobs).
> to me, that's a lot more interesting than the particular language choice...)

Well, at this level of course it is.  Language differences, if relevant
(and sometimes they are) are likely to be important and interesting only
when doing the application programming.  And then, so few people are
truly expert enough in more than one language to really be ABLE to judge
which one is really better or worse for anything.  Most people, myself
included, find vain and giddy reasons to justify that which we are doing
and want to continue doing, and keep a blunt instrument handy for those
that might seek to require us to do otherwise.

It reminds me, fondly enough, of many role-playing games.  You've got a
certain amount of "life".  You can spend it becoming the most kick-ass
warrior in the virtual universe, OR you can spend it becoming the best
magic worker, the best rogue, the best whatever.  If you try to become
the best warrior who is ALSO the best magician and picks a mean pocket,
well, you are likely to find that you may be the best all around
character in some ways but a real warrior, or magician, or rogue can all
kick your butt if you go head to head with them in their forte.  Plier
of all trades but master of none, so to speak.


> regards, mark hahn.
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Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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