Several of these quotations are borrowed from signatures seen on the net somewhere; the others are from my own reading, or (in a few cases) simply “classic quotations” that I like. (More detailed sourcing information for some of them can be found in the HTML comments.)
That a quotation appears here does not mean I completely agree with it. Most of them do reflect my opinions, but in some cases I have included observations that I find particularly clever or witty, or extremely well phrased, even when they reflect a viewpoint I don’t hold. And although it shouldn’t need to be said, the presence of a quotation on this page certainly doesn’t mean that I support all (or, in fact, anything) else that the author said or did—or even that I know who the author is.
A significant subset of these quotations are related (in one way or another) to my philosophy of software design. They are collected together in a separate document.
Wouldn’t the sentence “I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign” have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?
(Swiped from a fortune)
Most people use statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination.
It didn’t take very much reductio to get right down to absurdum from where you started.
Reisner’s Rule of Conceptual Inertia: “If you think big enough, you’ll never have to do it.”
—Quoted by Erik Naggum
Simplicity is the soul of efficiency.
—Austin Freeman (in The Eye of Osiris)
… it is simplicity that is difficult to make.
And there you have several miracles, first among them the wonder of a three-dimensional volume where black squiggles on white paper create worlds.
—Melvin Jules Bukiet (on books)
When a distinguished and elderly scientist says that something is possible, he’s almost certainly correct; when he says something is impossible, he’s very probably wrong.
—Arthur C. Clarke
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
—Arthur C. Clarke
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke
Sufficiently advanced political correctness is indistinguishable from irony.
There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
—Francis A. Schaeffer
Unix was not designed to stop people from doing stupid things, because that would also stop them from doing clever things.
Have you never thought as you read that months may lie between any pair of words?
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
—Maurice Sendak (in Where the Wild Things Are)
When the coughing increases, I leave out the next variation. If there is no coughing, I play them in order. […] The record so far is 18 variations, in New York.
—Rachmaninoff (on his 20 Corelli Variations)
No, this trick won’t work … How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?
Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
Please don’t fall into the trap of believing that I am terribly dogmatical about [the goto statement]. I have the uncomfortable feeling that others are making a religion out of it, as if the conceptual problems of programming could be solved by a single trick, by a simple form of coding discipline!
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.
—George Bernard Shaw
Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?
A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, Or a cataclysmic earthquake, I’d accept with some despair. But no, you sent us Congress! Good God, sir, was that fair?
—John Adams (in “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve”, from 1776)
Those who believe without reason cannot be convinced by reason.
G: “If we do happen to step on a mine, Sir, what do we do ?”
EB: “Normal procedure, Lieutenant, is to jump 200 feet in the air and scatter oneself over a wide area.”
somewhere in No Man’s Land, BA4
The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.
The designer of a new kind of system must participate fully in the implementation.
—Donald E. Knuth
… the designer of a new system must not only be the implementor and the first large-scale user; the designer should also write the first user manual. … If I had not participated fully in all these activities, literally hundreds of improvements would never have been made, because I would never have thought of them or perceived why they were important.
—Donald E. Knuth
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
Truth often suffers more by the heat of its defenders than by the arguments of its opponents.
As you know, Joel, children have always looked up to cowboys as role models. And vice versa.
| Ceci n’est pas une pipe
New and stirring things are belittled because if they are not belittled, the humiliating question arises, “Why then are you not taking part in them?”
—H. G. Wells
A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.
Programming languages are like pizzas — they come in only “too” sizes: too big and too small.
More good code has been written in languages denounced as “bad” than in languages proclaimed “wonderful”—much more.
—Bjarne Stroustrup (in The Design and Evolution of C++, 1994)
I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief; All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.
The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason why some people should not specialise in the behaviour of the left-side hairs on an elephant’s trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but to the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of their game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of the point of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant’s nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.
… the whole car will work very sweetly and will continue to do so with only a very small fraction of the attention that would be absolutely necessary for the care of a horse.
—Instruction Book for Chevy Copper-Cooled Motor Cars, 1923
I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.
To find a rhyme for silver, A seemingly rhymeless rhyme, Requires only will, ver- bosity and time.
—W. P. Espy
I have a firm grip on reality. Now I can strangle it.
… start with Plan 9, which is free of sin …
—Mark V. Shaney
The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players, but those who control the filtering, searching and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the expanses of cyberspace.
—Paul Saffo (Wired, March 1994)
C makes it easy to shoot yourself in the foot. C++ makes it harder, but when you do, it blows away your whole leg.
As the world becomes increasingly inundated with information, value shifts from individual pieces of information to the structure placed on the information.
—Michael F. Schwartz
Lesson number one in dealing with the White House: just because they’re nice to you, doesn’t mean they can actually help.
When David Letterman is on TV each night, what’s there left for the ironist to do?
If I hear the phrase “everything is an object” once more, I think I will scream.
If you want a language that tries to lock up all the sharp objects and fire-making implements, use Pascal or Ada: the Nerf languages, harmless fun for children of all ages, and they won’t mar the furniture.
—Scott Fahlman (on adding dangerous features to Lisp)
If a book is worth reading at all it is worth reading more than once … Suspense drags you on; appreciation causes you to linger.
I will not do it as a hack, I will not do it on a Mac, I will not do it for my friends, I will not do it on weekends, I will not write for Uncle Sam, I won’t do ADA, Sam-I-Am!
There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.
… with proper design, the features come cheaply. This approach is arduous, but continues to succeed.
Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere … yet sublimely pure and capable of stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.
Simple things should be simple and complex things should be possible.
Premature optimization is the root of all evil in programming.
Bird-feeding, for human consumption and mnemonic purposes, is perfectly appropriate in comments, but should be kept out of protocols.
The problem with using C++ … is that there’s already a strong tendency in the language to require you to know everything before you can do anything.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things.
Good work is always done in defiance of management.
The key to performance is elegance, not battalions of special cases. The terrible temptation to tweak should be resisted unless the payoff is really noticeable.
—Jon Bentley and Doug McIlroy
I never understood people who don’t have bookshelves.
“IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE FAITH.”
“It takes more practice,” I told him irritably.
“FAITH TAKES PRACTICE,” said Owen Meany.
It should be noted that no ethically-trained software engineer would ever consent to write a “DestroyBaghdad” procedure. Basic professional ethics would instead require him to write a “DestroyCity” procedure, to which “Baghdad” could be given as a parameter.
—Nathaniel S. Borenstein
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.
… you get enlightened by SGML, and even after you have decided that there must be something better (which shouldn’t be too hard, you think), you will find that you keep coming back.
It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary …
If you’ve been pounding nails with your forehead for years, it may feel strange the first time somebody hands you a hammer. But that doesn’t mean that you should strap the hammer to a headband just to give your skull that old familiar jolt.
I know of no safe repository of the ultimate power of society but the people. And if we think them not enlightened enough, the remedy is not to take power from them, but to inform them by education.
—Thomas Jefferson (in 1820)
The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
—Ursula K. Le Guin (in her 1976 introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness)
“A person who dies of lung cancer at age 70 will not be hospitalized later with another disease,” said a study released Thursday by [Canada’s] Imperial Tobacco touting the benefits of early death in smokers on the health-care system.
—Reuters (seen in The Chicago Tribune, 9/3/94)
Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.
—Sydney J. Harris
I can remember when a good politician had to be 75 percent ability and 25 percent actor, but I can well see the day when the reverse could be true.
The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.
I don’t care how many levels of reality you posit; as soon as you posit even one it’s turtles all the way down.
… A totally spiritual machine. If you write with goose quill you scratch the sweaty pages and keep stopping to dip for ink. Your thoughts go too fast for your aching wrist. If you type, the letters cluster together, and again you must go at the poky pace of the mechanism, not the speed of your synapse. But with the computer your fingers dream, your mind brushes the keyboard, you are borne on golden pinions, at last you confront the light of critical reason with the happiness of a first encounter.
—Umberto Eco (in Foucault’s Pendulum)
Objects in calendar are closer than they appear.
He was a hairy bear. He was a scary bear. We beat a hasty retreat from his lair, And described him with adjectives.
—School House Rock
Don’t anthropomorphize computers. They don’t like it.
You could say I’ve lost my belief in our politicians. They all seem like game show hosts to me.
The effect of his affected accent affected her, and effected a change in her affections.
If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a small chance of survival. There may even be a worse case: you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.
A witty saying proves nothing.
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
—T. E. Lawrence (in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
There are features that should not be used. There are concepts that should not be exploited. There are problems that should not be solved. There are programs that should not be written.
Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people.
He seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.
—Naturalist J.B.S. Haldane (on God)
We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer
My view of Microsoft is that they had two goals in the last 10 years: to copy the Macintosh and to copy Lotus’ success in the applications business. And they accomplished those goals. Now, they’re kind of lost. I’ve told Bill that I think it’s in Microsoft’s best interest if NeXT becomes successful because we’ll give him something to copy for the rest of this decade.
Writing code … is not an exercise in manliness.
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
Nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing so gentle as real strength.
—St. Francis de Sales
… you can look forward to reading—I swear this is true—Microsoft Bob for Dummies.
All bad jazz sounds like Woody Woodpecker.
Luck is the residue of design.
… more men are in love with war than ever get a chance to fight one, and … more guns are bought to satisfy this love than for a pardonable purpose.
—John le Carré
I would pay a lot of money to see this movie with a vegetarian.
—Anthony Lane (describing the visually and aurally graphic battle scenes in Braveheart)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun; but he don’t know what it means …
It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice. It wasn’t weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we’ve had enough. It was their emperor, not ours, who had the nerve to mount the rostrum and declare he had no clothes.
—John le Carré
When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of … In art, “good enough” is not good enough.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
I think psychoanalyze-pinhead is the important lesson of GNU Emacs.
—Bennett Todd (I love Emacs, but I agree that there’s a lesson there. I’m just not sure what it is.)
I’ll tell you what war is about. You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.
You don’t know what you’re doing—babe, it must be art.
Proprietary shmoprietary … Netscape HTML just looks better. And, depending on the browser, sometimes not even that.
A Wired reader told me once, “Get a life,” which I read from the back of a yacht in the Aegean, while eating fresh sea urchins and drinking terrific Montrachet.
In case you’re not a computer person, I should probably point out that “Real Soon Now” is a technical term meaning “sometime before the heat-death of the universe, maybe.”
It claims to be fully automatic, but actually you have to push this little button here.
—Gentleman John Killian
When you were born you cried, and the world rejoiced. Try to live your life so that when you die you will rejoice, and the world will cry.
You poor scholastics, you get so swept up in the illusion of being, cataloguing every corner of every special case, that you look at the pointing fingertip, and miss seeing the moon.
Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.
Men must fumble awhile with error to separate it from truth, I think—as long as they don’t seize the error hungrily because it has a pleasanter taste.
—Walter M. Miller, Jr. (in A Canticle for Liebowitz)
The Law of Software Envelopment: “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.”
If I had my life over, I guess I’d believe in reincarnation …
The Internet is a powerful example of free speech and the free market in action; it is curious that the Net has alarmed the lawmakers of a nation founded on those principles.
If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits. I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this by opening to his pupils precisely the attractions the study has for himself. The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
… semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie.
—Umberto Eco (in A Theory of Semiotics)
As complexity rises, precise statements lose meaning, and meaningful statements lose precision.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
It’s hard to read through a book on the principles of magic without glancing at the cover periodically to make sure it isn’t a book on software design.
Saving face, I fear, is to have two of them.
The Very Big Stupid is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D department.
A charlatan makes obscure what is clear; a thinker makes clear what is obscure.
Anybody who thinks a little 9,000-line program that’s distributed free and can be cloned by anyone is going to affect anything we do at Microsoft has his head screwed on wrong.
—Bill Gates (regarding Java, shortly before Microsoft licensed Java and cancelled the Blackbird project)
The real tight interface is between the book and the reader—the world of the book is plugged right into your brain, never mind the [virtual reality] bodysuit.
—Bill McKibben (in The Age of Missing Information)
… macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), …
All I can say is that this peacock is a horse of another color.
A company culture that isn’t satisfied with winning but also needs to dominate, that isn’t content with getting great results but also has to eliminate everything in its path, is fundamentally destructive—and ultimately self-destructive.
—Morton H. Meyerson (former CEO of EDS)
Guys are lucky because they get to grow mustaches. I wish I could. It’s like having a little pet for your face.
Beware of things with a small brain-to-body mass ratio—like cars.
[ActiveX] will have no security, no reliability, and although the demos might be impressive, they are simply clothes with no emperor: it is a pretty face and no more.
Let’s clean it up out there, guys. Nefarious users could even ship over their own PC binaries and run them on your system, which means that if you aren’t careful, they might do something useful like forcibly upgrade you to Linux. Of course, then the
perl.exe?FMH.pltravesty magically goes away, along with a whole lot of other problems. :-)
—Tom Christiansen (discussing a security hole in many PC-based web servers)
I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind, yet I’m ungrateful to those teachers.
Good judgement is the result of experience … Experience is the result of bad judgement.
Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.
—Abelson and Sussman
Is it not, then, better to be ridiculous and friendly than clever and hostile?
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.
Feminists can be as sexist as the next guy!
—Douglas R. Hofstadter
I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
—George Orwell (in “Notes on Nationalism”, 1945)
Independence Day marks the glorious realization of what, for me, has been a 25 year wait. Countless prayers have gone unanswered, but on this day, I have finally witnessed on screen what I have only dreamt of all my life, for this film features the complete and total destruction of the city of Houston through the use of nuclear weapons, by the U.S. government’s own hand!
Knowing how things work is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.
If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.
A language that doesn’t have everything is actually easier to program in than some that do.
I’m not young enough to know everything.
He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave.
—Sir William Drummond
Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting.
A designer can mull over complicated designs for months. Then suddenly the simple, elegant, beautiful solution occurs to him. When it happens to you, it feels as if God is talking! And maybe He is.
—Leo Frankowski (in The Cross-Time Engineer)
Microsoft puts the “backward” in “backward compatible”.
—Mike Bartman (paraphrased)
Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.
Programming languages should be designed not by piling feature on top of feature, but by removing the weaknesses and restrictions that make additional features appear necessary.
from Revised4 Report on the Algorithmic Language Scheme (I contend that this statement is true of software systems in general.)
The fearful are often holders of the most dangerous power. They become demoniac when they see the workings of all the life around them. Seeing the strengths as well as the weaknesses, they fasten only on the weaknesses.
—Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
The question shouldn’t be, “Will it happen?” but “Do we want it to happen, and can we help it happen?”
—Peter G. W. Keen
I should either have been less specific or more correct …
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em as much as you please.
I’m old enough not to care too much About what you think of me, But I’m young enough to remember the future And the way things ought to be.
That people do not learn very much from history is the most important of all the lessons history has to teach.
On that of which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.
Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
Unformed people delight in the gaudy and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary.
Some cynical people think that every activity must revolve around the mighty dollar, and that anyone saying otherwise is just attempting to delude the public. I will probably never be able to convice them that that isn’t always the case, but I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I live in a less dingy world than they do.
… the cost of adding a feature isn’t just the time it takes to code it. The cost also includes the addition of an obstacle to future expansion. … The trick is to pick the features that don’t fight each other.
I would be content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.
Increasingly, people seem to misinterpret complexity as sophistication, which is baffling—the incomprehensible should cause suspicion rather than admiration. Possibly this trend results from a mistaken belief that using a somewhat mysterious device confers an aura of power on the user.
Hushed are the stars, whose power is never spent; The hills are mute: yet, how they speak of God!
—C. H. Towne
Although NT has lots of the cool stuff I discovered in UNIX, what it doesn’t have is personalities.
Education: The ability to train yourself.
—John Browning and Spencer Reiss (in “Encyclopedia of the New Economy”, Wired 6.04)
[The French] have always hated us, of course … but now they REALLY hate us, because our culture has become so dominant that they’re having trouble completing so much as a single sentence without using American words. They’re always blurting out statements like: “Le software de la hardware est un humdinger!” And then they get so mad that they could spit.
To keep large programs well structured, you either need superhuman will power, or proper language support for interfaces.
As for a picture, if it isn’t worth a thousand words, the hell with it.
People buy holes, not drill bits.
There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.
… with the right value system, making good short-term decisions leads to good long-term results. … I think that is the purpose of a value system. We need to figure out the way to live so that when we are in the middle of life we “do the right thing.” When our neighbor comes over to argue with us, we are not going to start thinking about how this will effect our life ten years from now, but we react according to the way we were taught, and the way we taught ourselves.
—Ralph Johnson (Unlikely as it may seem, this quote came from a discussion of programming practices.)
… your Web browser is Ronald Reagan.
—Neal Stephenson (In its context, this statement is actually the punchline of one of the most insightful descriptions I’ve ever read of how computers work their magic on strings of numbers. But out of context, it is one of the more bizarrely absurd statements I’ve ever read.)
Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.
Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.
One of the great skills in using any language is knowing what not to use, what not to say. … There’s that simplicity thing again.
There are few things as seemingly untouched by the real world as a child asleep.
—John Irving (in A Widow for One Year)
Crappy old OSes have value in the basically negative sense that changing to new ones makes us wish we’d never been born.
In a society where there is democratic tolerance and freedom under the law, many kinds of evils will crop up, but give them a little time and they will usually breed their own cure.
—Bourke Cockran (to Winston Churchill, November 1895)
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.
—J. R. R. Tolkien (in The Hobbit)
If you threw Microsoft into a room with truth, you’d risk a matter/anti-matter explosion.
Forget the messiness of years and days—every work of human artifice has a proper viewing distance.
The ideal engineer is a composite … he is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist, or a writer; but he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.
—N. W. Dougherty
You can’t shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.
—They Might Be Giants
Sometimes, the best applause lies in knowing you have offended a fool.
When we use a language, we should commit ourselves to knowing it, being able to read it, and writing it idiomatically.
—Ron Jeffries (in Wiki:ReturnBooleanEvaluations)
Learning research tells us that the time lag from experiment to feedback is critical …
—Kent Beck (in Wiki:IsExtremeProgrammingWacko)
If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.”
—T. H. White (in The Once and Future King)
One of the most dangerous (and evil) things ever injected into the project world is the notion of process maturity. Process maturity is for replicable manufacturing contexts. Projects are one-time shots. Replicability is never the primary issue on one-time shots. More evil than good has come from the notion that we should “stick to the methodology.” This is a recipe for non-adaptive death. I’d rather die by commission.
My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there.
I think it’s tragic that scientific advances have caused many people to imagine that they know it all, and that God is irrelevant or nonexistent. The fact is that everything we learn reveals more things that we do not understand.
—Donald E. Knuth (on Proverbs 3:16)
A rational mind like mine generally wants to nail everything down, to understand concepts fully. Yet I am glad that true religion is a great mystery, something I can feel but not describe, something I can ponder and learn about, something that will always remain tantalizingly beyond my grasp.
—Donald E. Knuth (on 1 Timothy 3:16)
“How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
“As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
“… I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
“Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
“… generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
We don’t think of ourselves as being perfectionists, really. To us it’s more about desperately trying to have it sound more or less OK.
I don’t know why any right-thinking person would play anything but a blues-based style on electric guitar.
Christ … forms the spiritual atmosphere breathed by a believer’s soul.
—Donald E. Knuth (on 1 Peter 3:16)
You think you know when you can learn, are more sure when you can write, even more when you can teach, but certain when you can program.
“Open your present …” “No, you open your present …” Kaczinski Christmas.
—Unabomber Haiku Contest, CyberLaw mailing list
The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
… it is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state.
Nothing in progression can rest on its original plan. We may as well think of rocking a grown man in the cradle of an infant.
… society is tradition and order and reverence, not a series of cheap bargains between selfish interests.
—Poul Anderson (in “Iron”)
No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.
Inspiration comes from the act of writing.
Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost.
… as a slow-witted human being I have a very small head and I had better learn to live with it and to respect my limitations and give them full credit, rather than to try to ignore them, for the latter vain effort will be punished by failure.
—Edsger W. Dijkstra
Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.
There is nothing permanent except change.
We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.
—Rutherford D. Rogers
That’s all there is … You. And you and you and you and you and you. I thought there was something more, something larger, but I was wrong. One by one. That’s all there is.
—Nancy Kress (in Beggars in Spain)
Perhaps there was no way for the young to be serious without being tiresome. They lacked that all-important dimension of physics: torque. Too much time ahead, too little behind, like a man trying to carry a horizontal ladder with a grip at one end. Not even an honorable passion could balance very well. And while jiggling hard to just keep your balance, how could anything ever be funny?
—Nancy Kress (in Beggars in Spain)
To a database person, every nail looks like a thumb. Or something like that.
There’s no sense being exact about something if you don’t even know what you’re talking about.
—John von Neumann
I don’t know or trust Demeter.
Just as playing Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t turn a kid into a wizard, pretending to be a homicidal maniac online doesn’t make a man a killer. But determining what it does make him is one of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing modern society.
—Rita Ferrandino (in Terms of Service, Ferrandino’s account of her time as an AOL moderator.)
There is nothing on earth more exquisite than a bonny book, with well-placed columns of rich black writing in beautiful borders, and illuminated pictures cunningly inset. But nowadays, instead of looking at books, people read them.
—George Bernard Shaw
Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.
It is almost impossible to catch a speedy invisible model automobile even when one is a skillful dentist.
—E. B. White
Newton was a genius, but not because of the superior computational power of his brain. Newton’s genius was, on the contrary, his ability to simplify, idealize, and streamline the world so that it became, in some measure, tractable to the brains of perfectly ordinary men.
—Gerald M. Weinberg
Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright. “How will authors and artists get paid for their work?” they ask me. Truth be told, I don’t know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: “How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?” I’m sorry, but I don’t know that, either.
If you keep your mind sufficiently open, people will throw a lot of rubbish into it.
Wit is cultured insolence.
The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.
If, after reading Tuesday one evening before bed, [kids] look out the window and see frogs flying by—well, we should all be so lucky.
If you like your remote messaging fat, dumb, and interoperable, you could also look into the SOAP libraries distributed with Ruby.
Good engineering is not a matter of creativity or centering or grounding or inspiration or lateral thinking, as useful as those might be, but of decoding the clever, even witty, messages the solution space carves on the corpses of the ideas in which you believed with all your heart, and then building the road to the next message.
Java development without a little heresy would be a dull place, and a dangerous one.
First you listen to the users; then you ignore them.
… wisdom is in large part the knowledge of how to avoid doing dumb things, and thus grows globally as a function of the published inventory of stupid mistakes.
… the closer you get to the truth, the messier your sentence gets.
The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed.
The really important thing about Ajax is that it’s tricked us into adopting a really powerful language when we wouldn’t have chosen to do so on our own.
It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.
—Frank Herbert (in Dune)
How can one foresee, without first remembering?
Some fogies of advancing years have suggested the initial price point [for Apple’s iPhone] of $499 is too high. They fail to understand: The “cool” of owning this phone, particularly for the early adopters, is worth an easy $497, bringing the phone itself down to $2 even.
Facts don’t squeal when you stuff ‘em where you want ‘em to go.
—John R. Erickson
It would be well if engineering were less generally thought of, and even defined, as the art of constructing. In a certain important sense it is rather the art of not constructing: or, to define it rudely, but not inaptly, it is the art of doing well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two after a fashion.
—Arthur Mellen Wellington
The hardest part of design … is keeping features out.
English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages into dark alleys, beats them up for their words and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.
In the fight between Calvin and Arminius, back Jesus. He was not a systematic theologian, and I consider this to be a feature, not a bug.
The more we learn about these Bush people, the more we see the answer to the question: “What if Frodo had kept the Ring?”
Simplicity does not mean want or poverty. It does not mean the absence of any decor, or absolute nudity. It only means that the decor should belong intimately to the design proper, and that anything foreign to it should be taken away.
—Paul Jacques Grillo
Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything— That’s how the light gets in.
Every task involves constraint, Solve the thing without complaint; There are magic links and chains Forged to loose our rigid brains. Structures, structures, though they bind, Strangely liberate the mind.
Beauty is more important in computing than anywhere else in technology because software is so complicated. Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity.
—David Gelernter (in Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology)
Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.
A simple [writing] style is the result of very hard work.
Design is the art of separation, grouping, abstraction, and hiding. The fulcrum of design decisions is change. Separate those things that change for different reasons. Group together those things that change for the same reason.
—Uncle Bob Martin
The tragedy of our time is that we’ve got it backwards, we’ve learned to love techniques and use people.
We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together are monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say, listen to this, it is important.
—Gary Provost (in 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (1985))
Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize ‘til you have tried to make it precise.
Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.
You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.
Systems programmers are the high priests of a low cult.
The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility.
I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.
We forgive once we give up attachment to our wounds.
The general problem with ambitious systems is complexity. […] it is important to emphasize the value of simplicity and elegance, for complexity has a way of compounding difficulties.
—Fernando J. Corbató
Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.
It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
Having a short-term memory is good for your long-term happiness.
As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Worry is not believing God will get it right, and bitterness is believing God got it wrong.
Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.
English in the mouths of the English was a dream language, an affair of allusion and code.
—Michelle de Kretser
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
—Brian Eno (in A Year with Swollen Appendices)
So instead of loving what you think is peace, love others and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem.
But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
If one meets a powerful person—Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates—ask them five questions:
- What power have you got?
- Where did you get it from?
- In whose interests do you exercise it?
- To whom are you accountable?
- And how can we get rid of you?
Simplicity and elegance are unpopular because they require hard work and discipline to achieve and education to be appreciated.
When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
—C. S. Lewis
Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.
Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.
—George Bernard Shaw
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
Architecture is the tension between coupling and cohesion.
Programming is one of the most difficult branches of applied mathematics.
—Edsger W. Dijkstra
Anyone could learn LISP in one day, except that if they already knew Fortran, it would take three days.
So much complexity in software comes from trying to make one thing do two things.
The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.
Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back.
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.
—Thomas Merton (in a letter to Dorothy Day)
The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain and simple to express: Err and err and err again but less and less and less.
—Piet Hein (in Grooks, 1966)
I explain business stupidity to machines.
—Jason Gorman (explaining his programming job as if to a five-year-old)
The amount of terror in a speaker’s stomach is proportional to the square of the amount he doesn’t know about his audience.
Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior.
Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior.
Programmers spend the first 5 years of their career mastering complexity, and the rest of their lives learning simplicity
Bookes, Bookes, Pyles of bookes, Left arounde the hous Toweres high of mirth and lore Skyscrapers ye kan browse
Overload, clutter, and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design.
The best performance improvement is the transition from the nonworking state to the working state.
Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: a very stupid daughter of a very wise mother.
A week of coding can often save an hour of thought.
Simplicity is the unavoidable price we must pay for reliability.
—C.A.R. Hoare (This is the pithy line that is most often quoted, but I think I prefer the expanded version.)
Encryption science denial is climate science denial, but for Democrats.
Good design adds value faster than it adds cost.
—Thomas C. Gale
Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.
Without privacy there was no point in being an individual.
Silence is not only golden, it is seldom misquoted.
The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.
The thing that makes software design difficult is that we must express thoughts about a problem and a solution we typically do not understand fully, using a language that does not contain many of our accustomed features of expression, to a system that is unforgiving of mistakes.
The question of software correctness ultimately boils down to, “Does it do what we have in our minds, even the things we have not gotten around to thinking about yet?”
Wisdom begins when we discover the difference between “That makes no sense,” and “I don’t understand.”
—Mary Doria Russell
Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a magic bullet.
—Gerald Jay Sussman
Nobody knows her own heart— You might’ve been introduced But you drifted apart.
(in The El)
Scope doesn’t creep; understanding grows.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
—The Brundtland Commission (This definition from the domain of public policy and economic development fits my understanding of software architecture quite well.)
I’ll renounce cynicism when it ceases having predictive powers.
—Dave Vandenbout (@devbisme)
Constraints are not limitations; they are insight.
To hell with computer literacy. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Study mathematics. Learn to think. Read. Write.
—Butler Lampson (Given what “computer literacy” meant when Lampson said this in 1986, I agree. But I do believe coding should be taught as a fundamental skill.)
If you are a creative person then you are never really off the clock. Even sleeping feels creative.
If you put a switch in a cave with a sign on it saying “End-of-the-World Switch. DO NOT TOUCH”, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.
Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.
The paradox is that when managers focus on productivity, long-term improvements are rarely made. On the other hand, when managers focus on quality, productivity improves continuously.
An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.
Conformism and non-conformism are symmetrical expressions of a lack of originality.
—Nicolás Gómez Dávila
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny …”
The true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.
—Leonard Shapiro (on Stalinism)
Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
The only secret of magic is that I’m willing to work harder on it than you think it’s worth.
People forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well you did it.
We in science are spoiled by the success of mathematics. Mathematics is the study of problems so simple that they have good solutions.
I don’t know what I’ll need to learn next, but it will probably be something I previously dismissed as useless.
—John D. Cook
You don’t pay engineers to write code, you pay them to understand subtleties and edges of the problem. The code is incidental.
The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.
—Alexander von Humboldt
The purpose of abstractions is to conceal undesirable properties; desirable ones should not be hidden.
Almost anything in software can be implemented, sold, and even used given enough determination. There is nothing a mere scientist can say that will stand against the flood of a hundred million dollars. But there is one quality that cannot be purchased in this way—and that is reliability. The price of reliability is the pursuit of the utmost simplicity. It is a price which the very rich find most hard to pay.
Language design and implementation is engineering. We make decisions using evaluations of costs and benefits or, if we must, using predictions of those based on past experience.
If you think good architecture is expensive, try bad architecture.
—Brian Foote and Joseph Yoder in Big Ball of Mud
A good design is not the one that correctly predicts the future, it’s one that makes adapting to the future affordable.
You can prematurely optimize maintainability, flexibility, security, and robustness just like you can performance.
The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and inflict the understanding.
—Francis Bacon Novum Organon (1620)
Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever.
The art of programming is the art of organizing complexity, of mastering multitude and avoiding its bastard chaos as effectively as possible.
—Edsger Dijkstra Notes on Structured Programming
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.
I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.
If society lacks the unity based upon the commitment of men’s wills to a common objective, then it is no more than a pile of sand that the least jolt or the slightest puff will suffice to scatter.
Beauty is the promise of happiness.
We turn toward God only to obtain the impossible. As for the possible, men suffice.
In software development there’s no greater level of design detail than what is captured in the code itself.
There is no data that can be displayed in a pie chart, that cannot be displayed better in some other type of chart.
All grown-ups were once children, but only few of them remember it.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
He who fights with monsters, should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.
Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.
I am so constituted that I can accept authority, but I cannot and will not accept bad reasons.
To me programming is more than an important practical art. It is also a gigantic undertaking in the foundations of knowledge.
Design depends largely on constraints.
A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.
An evolving system increases its complexity unless work is done to reduce it.
I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
—Michel de Montaigne
Fiction is a piece of truth that turns lies into meaning.
Raisins are always optional. There is nothing a raisin can do that an M&M can’t do better.
If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute.
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
How does one hate a country, or love one? I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love for one’s country? Is it hate for one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession … Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.
—Ursula K. Le Guin (in The Left Hand of Darkness)
Young Americans who leave their great big homogeneous country and visit some other part of the world typically go through several stages of culture shock: first, dumb wide-eyed astonishment. Then a tentative engagement with the new country’s manners, cuisine, public transit systems and toilets, leading to a brief period of fatuous confidence that they are instant experts on the new country. As the visit wears on, homesickness begins to set in, and the traveler begins to appreciate, for the first time, how much he or she took for granted at home. At the same time it begins to seem obvious that many of one’s own cultures and traditions are essentially arbitrary, and could have been different; driving on the right side of the road, for example. When the traveler returns home and takes stock of the experience, he or she may have learned a good deal more about America than about the country they went to visit.
—Neal Stephenson (I love this quote because it precisely describes my experience living for three years in Australia.)
I began to suspect that the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness, and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.
—C. S. Lewis
Last updated 9 April 2018