Metamorphosis: A Programmer Looks at the Software Crisis

Could this possibly be a Kafkaesque treatise on debugging?
  • Author: William Beckett

  • Publisher: Numerical Analog, Inc.

  • Price: $15 US

  • ISBN: 0-966033-9-6

  • Reviewer: Harvey Friedman

One of the reasons I agreed to review this book was that I was intrigued by the title. Could this possibly be a Kafkaesque treatise on debugging? As I read it, I realized that such was not the case. I found the style more Conradian, as in Heart of Darkness.

The book has three main sections. The first, comprising 9 chapters, is a response to an article in the September 1994 issue of Scientific American titled “Software's Chronic Crisis”. The author, William Beckett, is an experienced systems designer/programmer who has used many programming languages on many hardware platforms. The writer of the Scientific American piece appeared to be without an extensive computer background, so drew much of his article from management apologetics and computer shock headlines in the popular press.

Beckett responds section by section, paragraph by paragraph, and even line by line in these nine chapters. His theme is common sense or pragmatism. Non-entrepreneurial programmers will enjoy this part of the book because it is the working stiff talking back to “Dilbert”-style management.

Section 2 comprises chapters 10-15. Here, Beckett reprints and discusses letters and responses from Paul Allen and from Wired. He uses lots of personal anecdotes illustrating points he wants to emphasize. This too is a good read, particularly for the disenchanted.

Section 3, chapters 16-21, is where things become highly speculative. One could say that here we have a melange of science fiction, hermeneutics, New Age thoughts, etc. Section 3 should be called “the world according to Beckett, and how Beckett would make it better”. I found myself slogging through the final section.

Overall, this book could provide useful reflection for programmers who are not so overworked that they have time to actually read and think about his controversial ideas. The avowed purpose of the book “is to provide professional men and women in creative fields with a perspective on current Western ideology which is capable of transforming it for the better”. He supports it with an eclectic bibliography of 54 items for further reading. This book will not be everyone's cup of tea by any means, but some might find a few good ideas or explanations.

Metamorphosis can be purchased through amazon.com, or write the publisher at P.O. Box 631, Snohomish, WA 98291 for more information.

Harvey Friedman is a computer consultant at the University of Washington, functioning either as system administrator or statistical analyst. In his leisure time he likes playing with Linux and enjoys orienteering, the sport of navigation. He can be reached via e-mail at fnharvey@u.washington.edu.

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