Programmers At Work

March 2, 2008

Butler Lampson 1986/2008 Reflections

Filed under: Uncategorized — sml @ 11:19 pm

At the cool jargon web site, there’s a word named and defined after Butler Lampson.

milliLampson /mil’*-lamp`sn/ /n./ A unit of talking speed, abbreviated mL. Most people run about 200 milliLampsons. The eponymous Butler Lampson (a CS theorist and systems implementor highly regarded among hackers) goes at 1000. A few people speak faster. This unit is sometimes used to compare the (sometimes widely disparate) rates at which people can generate ideas and actually emit them in speech. For example, noted computer architect C. Gordon Bell (designer of the PDP-11) is said, with some awe, to think at about 1200 mL but only talk at about 300; he is frequently reduced to fragments of sentences as his mouth tries to keep up with his speeding brain.

As I was updating myself about Butler Lampson’s activities these days, I ran across this entry and it brought me back to my meeting with Butler back in 1986. I’ve posted his complete interview from that time on this page found in the column at the right. Please take a look because he was and is a fascinating, engaging man and as the word implies, he’s articulate and a deep thinker on many levels. However, to this day, I’ve got to say, my memory is of someone who spoke with such clarity and deliberateness and broadmindedness that everything seemed to slow down and settle in as I settled in to my chair in his little office to offer up provocative open-ended questions that I hoped would spur him to offer up some insights into the “black magic” art of software that was taking hold of our world back in 1986. I hope I have the priviledge soon to engage him again in a wide-ranging discussion as there have been a lot of stones added to the software mosaic since that time and I imagine he has a lot of reflections upon the shape the world of software has taken. To this day, Butler has left an indelible imprint on me personally as he has on the entire industry. He continues to hold his lofty important seat offstage in today’s world of programming.

You can learn more about Butler Lampson’s current pursuits at the website he maintains at Microsoft where he now is a fellow in the Research Group.

Some excerpts from the interview back then that continue to reverberate:

Lampson: The most important goal [in program or system design] is to define as precisely as possible the interfaces between the system and the rest of the world…the biggest change in my design style over the years has been to put more and more eemphasis on the problem to be solved and on finding techniques to define the interfaces precisely. That pays off tremendously…

Lampson: Everything should be made as simple as possible. But to do that you have to master complexity.

Lampson: A beautiful program is like a beautiful theorem: It does the job elegantly. It has a simple and perspicuous structure; people say, “Oh, yes. I see that’s the way to do it.”


  1. Programmers at Work

    Programmers at Work: Interviews With 19 Programmers Who Shaped the Computer Industry. Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google had written a very positive review of it on Amazon
    If you want to know what programmers do, the best thing is to read th…

    Trackback by Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog — March 3, 2008 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  2. it is nice (and surprising) to hear people who say really sane things about what it takes to make good software. they are all so true, i think, and yet seen / heard / followed so rarely. 😦 i guess i hope that they are successful because they are doing things the Right Way, and that articles like this can get the word out and move people in that direction.

    re: a beautiful program does the job elegantly: however, apparently sometimes the devil is in the details ( 🙂

    Comment by Raoul Duke — March 3, 2008 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  3. P.S.: by the way, everything went italics in the article at “Can you describe a beautiful program?”

    Comment by Raoul Duke — March 3, 2008 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

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