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Interview with Alan Kay


Binstock: Are you still programming?

Kay: I was never a great programmer. That's what got me into making more powerful programming languages. I do two kinds of programming. I do what you could call metaprogramming, and programming as children from the age of 9 to 13 or 14 would do. I spend a lot of time thinking about what children at those developmental levels can actually be powerful at, and what's the tradeoff between…Education is a double-edged sword. You have to start where people are, but if you stay there, you're not educating.

Extracting patterns from today's programming practices ennobles them in a way they don't deserve

The most disastrous thing about programming — to pick one of the 10 most disastrous things about programming — there's a very popular movement based on pattern languages. When Christopher Alexander first did that in architecture, he was looking at 2,000 years of ways that humans have made themselves comfortable. So there was actually something to it, because he was dealing with a genome that hasn't changed that much. I think he got a few hundred valuable patterns out of it. But the bug in trying to do that in computing is the assumption that we know anything at all about programming. So extracting patterns from today's programming practices ennobles them in a way they don't deserve. It actually gives them more cachet.

The best teacher I had in graduate school spent the whole semester destroying any beliefs we had about computing. He was a real iconoclast. He happened to be a genius, so we took it. At the end of the course, we were free because we didn't believe in anything. We had to learn everything, but then he destroyed it. He wanted us to understand what had been done, but he didn't want us to believe in it.

Binstock: Who was that?

Kay: That was Bob Barton, who was the designer of the Burroughs B5000. He's at the top of my list of people who should have received a Turing Award but didn't. The award is given by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), so that is ridiculous, but it represents the academic bias and software bias that the ACM has developed. It wasn't always that way. Barton was probably the number-one person who was alive who deserved it. He died last year, so it's not going to happen unless they go to posthumous awards.

It's like the problem Christian religions have with how to get Socrates into heaven, right? You can't go to heaven unless you're baptized. If anyone deserves to go to heaven, it's Socrates, so this is a huge problem.

Binstock: I don't think they do that.

Kay: They should. It's like the problem Christian religions have with how to get Socrates into heaven, right? You can't go to heaven unless you're baptized. If anyone deserves to go to heaven, it's Socrates, so this is a huge problem. But only the Mormons have solved this — and they did it. They proxy-baptized Socrates.

Binstock: I didn't realize that. One can only imagine how thankful Socrates must be.

Kay: I thought it was pretty clever. It solves a thorny problem that the other churches haven't touched in 2,000 years.

Group Work

Kay: Have you interviewed Vint Cerf?

Binstock: No.

Kay: He's a very special guy. Not just for brains. He's one of the better organizers of people. If you had to point to one person, given that the Internet was a community effort, the one who made that community work was Vint. And he also was the co-guy on TCP/IP. I love him. I've known him for years. He runs a pretty tough, pretty organized meeting, but he does it so well that everyone likes it.

[Digression on who, in addition to Cerf, should have won various computing prizes…]

The prizes aren't a thing that Dr. Dobb's worries about, because prizes are mostly for individuals, not for teams that are trying to do serious engineering projects. The dynamics are very different. A lot of people go into computing just because they are uncomfortable with other people. So it is no mean task to put together five different kinds of Asperger's syndrome and get them to cooperate. American business is completely fucked up because it is all about competition. Our world was built for the good from cooperation. That is what they should be teaching.

Binstock: That's one of the few redeeming things about athletics.

Kay: Absolutely! No question. Team sports. It's the closest analogy. Everyone has to play the game, but some people are better at certain aspects.

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