If You Cut A Mort, Does He Not Bleed?

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Lazy Coder Scott snickers when he reads blog entries decrying the existence of “Mort”. As he points out, we are all Morts to some degree or another.

I snicker when I read these posts because they dont get it. The entire POINT of writing code is to abstract away the difficulty that is inherent in using computers.

Which is true. The history of software development has been all about heaping one layer of abstraction on top of another.

However, I don’t see many blog entries decrying the existence of Mort. What I see are blog entries from “Not-So-Mort” upset about what happens to their programming tools and languages when tool and language providers accomodate Mort. Perhaps we see these tools as being made for the “Not-So-Mort” set, when the reality appears that these tools are being built for Mort. Perhaps the “Not-So-Mort” set would like separate tools.

Consider this, all abstractions are leaky. However, when an abstraction is well implemented, it hardly matters for the majority of the population. I believe I drive just as well in an automatic transmission car as I would in a manual transmission car, though my car has reduced the leak in the abstraction a bit via its sequential shift so I can switch to a manual-like mode, but that’s beside the point.

But many times, an abstraction is created in haste and causes problems for those of us who need finer grained control. A classic example is WebForms designer in Visual Studio.NET 1.1. I'm fine with the webforms designer. It is a great productivity tool and makes it quick and easy for Mort to build web pages using RAD techniques.

But now, take a Not-So-Mort who wants to use something like Microformats for example, which requires clean markup. He marks up his pages just right, but the pages get all FUBAR because the designer decides to rewrite his code. That's problematic.

The problem here is we’ve exchanged long-term productivity gains (the maintenance cycle) in exchange for short-term gains in initial productivity.

Because these abstractions are leaky and poorly implemented, they convolute the implementation details they are meant to hide and make long term maintenance that much more difficult.

Whereas well implemented abstractions tend to promote good code. I’ve read several people state that a developer would have a difficult time writing more optimized Assembler than a good C++ compiler generates in this day and age, especially on a grand scale. It can still be done, but the fact that it is so close shows that C++ is a great abstraction on top of Assembly.

I’ve written about Mort too, but I am not hating on Mort. As Scott says, we are all to some degree a Mort. However one characteristic of a Mort as I have seen commonly defined is that Mort does not care to constantly learn. Mort isn’t striving to improve.

I do still think we should expect more from Mort. Understand that though the tools we have at our disposal make computing easier every day, computing at its core is a complex problem. Be sure to gain some small understanding of what these tools are doing for you and a general idea of what happens under the hood.

Back to my car analogy, I couldn’t take a wrench and fix my timing belt for the life of me. But I do have a general idea of what an automatic transmission is doing and what limitations it causes on my driving (I can’t seem to redline!). I would never ask Mort to understand assembly, but do take the time to understand some general principles.