I'm Brett Slatkin and this is where I write about programming and related topics. You can contact me here or view my projects.

06 January 2015

What would Von Neumann say about data binding?

Interesting quote and book summary on High Scalability about building the ENIAC:

Von Neumann had one piece of advice for us: not to originate anything... One of the reasons our group was successful, and got a big jump on others, was that we set up certain limited objectives, namely that we would not produce any new elementary components... We would try and use the ones which were available for standard communications purposes. We chose vacuum tubes which were in mass production, and very common types, so that we could hope to get reliable components, and not have to go into component research.

This makes me wonder about the evolution of tools we're seeing around data binding in building websites these days: React, Angular, Polymer. The outcomes, APIs, and benefits of these projects are very similar. But somehow using these tools feels like you're doing a type of UX development research — they're unproven.

The conservative approach, as Von Neumann suggests, would be to avoid these tools entirely. However, I believe these next generation UX tools are actually a secret weapon akin to Paul Graham's description of using LISP instead of a median programming language:

We wrote our software in a weird AI language, with a bizarre syntax full of parentheses. For years it had annoyed me to hear Lisp described that way. But now it worked to our advantage. In business, there is nothing more valuable than a technical advantage your competitors don't understand. In business, as in war, surprise is worth as much as force.

Obviously, the median language has enormous momentum. I'm not proposing that you can fight this powerful force. What I'm proposing is exactly the opposite: that, like a practitioner of Aikido, you can use it against your opponents.

If you work for a big company, this may not be easy. You will have a hard time convincing the pointy-haired boss to let you build things in Lisp, when he has just read in the paper that some other language is poised, like Ada was twenty years ago, to take over the world. But if you work for a startup that doesn't have pointy-haired bosses yet, you can, like we did, turn the Blub paradox to your advantage: you can use technology that your competitors, glued immovably to the median language, will never be able to match.

And so we're trying to build some things using Polymer. I hate doing anything trendy but I must admit that it feels extremely productive to use. Given that the <template> tag is built into many browsers now, I think this is more stable than it appears. I'll let you know how it goes.
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