Reaction to "The Story of Mel"

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For the uninitiated "The Story of Mel" is a free verse poem (usenet, hacking). It describes a programmer so in tune with the hardware he programs for that he writes directly in machine code. No compiler necessary, language, what language? Just Op codes and registers. I recently became acquainted with this piece of usenet folklore in a blog explaining how Mel pulled off his feats of grandeur. I would like to highlight some issues with venerating programmers like Mel's method. I will also discuss what lessons I think that Mel's story can teach us today.

To be clear, Mel approached programming not as an exercise in the abstract, but as an engineering task. The way that the term "software engineer" conjures images of men with true grit. These engineers compose electrons to build virtual bridges or skyscrapers. They take their lunch casually 1500ft from certain death. Mel wasn't programming so much as he was configuring a machine of infinite possibility. Mel's program played blackjack with potential customers.

While there is no hard evidence, it is likely that Mel is Mel Kaye. He wrote a compiler for the LGP-30. For the purposes of this article I'm going focus on Mel's method (writing in hex). Mel's method makes it impossible for another programmer to pick up and immediately understand. Other RPC-4000 programmers were capable of dissecting his code to understand his meaning, but not without significant effort. In writing in the raw hexadecimal1 Mel obfuscates his meaning. The human element is completely removed from his task.

Computer programs are expressions of ideas first, and produce results when run on machines second. If this order is confused, or the first part ignored, the whole enterprise falls apart. Indeed, when Ed Nather is tasked with finding a bug in Mel's program it takes him weeks to dissect what is happening. He gives up after finally grokking a non-infinite infinite loop.

At this point, some audience members may be thinking "uh oh I know where he's going." The rest of the discussion will be about the importance of writing and maintaining documentation. I want to argue the opposite. Good documentation is very important. When it comes to writing code that humans can read, documentation should take a back seat to clear code.

What do I mean by clear code? I mean approaching the problem the way one approaches writing literature. After all, computer programs are first ways to communicate ideas, and second something a machine understands2. If we take this attitude when writing code then becomes an exercise in editing.

Taking this perspective, instead of the success condition being "it does what I want" and "if it ain't broke don't fix it," there is a framework for development. The idea is to approach code the way you approach literature. Your first draft is getting your ideas on the page. Editing from the first draft replaces "once it works I'm done." You would never publish the first draft of anything. In the same way that you should never publish the first working version of a program. In the parlance of test driven design, this is the refactor of "Red, Green, Refactor".

So how does Mel fit into this perspective? Mel understood the machine he was writing code for inside out. This should not be abandoned completely at the cost of making computer code understandable by humans. It is where and how Mel's tricks should be used that make the difference.

One of the amazing things about a computer is how it is suited for layers of abstraction. One can follow these layers up and down. At one level you can reason about problems in number theory. At another you can look at how the silicone is laid out to allow a particular junction to work. A programmer like Mel would be able to take advantage of the system's quirks in the compiler. Everyone would benefit from Mel's low level understanding of the system.

For example, Mel exploited the time it took for the drum memory to rotate to avoid a time-delay loop when interfacing with the Flexowriter. He could orchestrate things so that the minimum amount of time was used waiting for the Flexowriter. This is a clever optimization. If Mel had been able to incorporate it as an optimization for the Fortran compiler, everyone would have benefit from this trick. This would allow everyone coding on the RPC-4000 to enjoy faster programs. Programmers wouldn't worry about the intricacies of drum memory. Instead, Mel wrote these optimization tricks directly into his code. It always outperformed the equivalent Fortran compiler, and impressed potential clients. This was the clear win for the company that justified Mel's unorthodox approach to programming.

What have we learned from analyzing this piece of Usenet lore? Knowing the computer inside out from top to bottom is valuable. This knowledge can be used to make computers run programs really fast. It is better to apply this knowledge to a system that everyone will benefit from. Finally, it is important to write clear code that other people understand.

If you have any comments, you can tweet me @dbjergaard.

Footnotes:

1

The closest modern equivalent would be writing the elf by hand in Linux, or an executable (.exe) on Windows

2

Depending where in the chain you draw the line… Almost all languages are compiled or interpreted, meaning what the programmer writes gets processed by another program who's job is to make the computer do something.