Certification, testing, RDF, semantics, a post-lunch haze

Reg "no relation" Braithwaite suggests here a certification for programmers, to cover:
  • Continuous integration
  • Black box testing
  • White box testing
  • Design for testing
  • Probabilistic testing
  • etc. [you get the idea]

Basically, all the things that demonstrate that your system is sound.

Most interestingly, Reg gives this caveat:

Like everyone else in favour of certification, I have my own ides about what skills and knowledge you need to demonstrate to get your certification. Unlike everyone else, I think I would fail my own certification if I didn’t do a whole lot of studying. [my emphasis]
Smart. I have this suspicion that a lot of the angst that surrounds the sporadic talk of "Agile" certification comes from (an unwillingness to admit to) fear of not making the cut. Too many programmers have way to much ego invested in their own assessment of how brilliant they are, and the notion that someone is going to come watch them do their job and maybe say "d'you know what, this isn't very good" is absolutely terrifying to them. Of course, the industry is beset with certifications that aren't worth the mouseclick it takes to get them, and the industry is also beset with development managers who don't do their own hiring and allow HR departments to abuse certifications during recruitment. The Agile corner of the IT world is not alone in this.

But that's not what I want to write about today.

When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains--however improbable--must be the truth

Over at enfranchisedmind Brian had something to say about Reg's post that segued from certification through testing to static typing. Ah yes, testing vs static typing. Brian presents a list of quite impressive qualities of a program that can be enforced by OCaml's static type system, even things like "That a Postgresql cursor can only be created and accessed with a transaction." That's pretty sweet.

But, you know, correctness of the code in those sorts of terms is only part of the story. And perhaps not even the important part. Brian pretty much says this himself:
One thing I have realized recently. And that is that our job [as programmers] is not to produce working code. It’s a heretical idea, but it really isn’t. Our job, as software developers, is to solve problems.
Emphatically yes. He also says:
The mantra here [..] is “make illegal states impossible to represent”. Or, to quote my old CS teacher, “if you don’t mean it do that, don’t make it possible to do that!” And more so than any testing, even unit testing, static types are on the front line for doing that.
Which is great!

Thing is, though, that Aristotle wouldn't like systems engineering much (he'd probably have liked programming, but that's a whole other thing), because merely having legislated out of existence all the illegal states we can think of doesn't mean that we're guaranteed to do the right thing. As in, the thing that the customer will be willing to pay us for.

And that brings me on to something I've been meaning to write down about RDF.

Mere Semantics

A friend of mine is pondering a career change to work in the field of "document management", and he called me the other day to pick my brains about the Dublin Core. Dublin Core is fine by me, because it's meta-data. Nice to have that in a uniform machine readable format. But then there's this sort of thing:
here we in essence have the reason [that duck typing doesn't "scale"]: one has to limit the context, one has to limit the objects manipulated by the program[...] Enlarge the context, and at some point you will find objects that don't fit the presuppositions of your code. [...] the solution [...] requires one very simple step: one has to use identifiers that are context free. [...] then they will alway mean the same thing, and so the problem of ambiguity will never surface.
The proposal, which appears to be a serious one, is to write code like this:
<http://a.com/Duck> a owl:Class;
rdfs:subClassOf <http://a.com/Bird>;
rdfs:comment "The class of ducks, those living things that waddle around in ponds" .

and so forth.

We'll draw a veil over the matter of a.com possibly having a different notion of ducks that b.com (in which case the dreaded UFO wobbles into view, a philosophical hub-cap suspended from a cognitive string), and consider instead what it means to imagine that this sort of scheme would capture the semantics of what it means for an object to be a duck.

I suspect that if one has studied a lot (but possibly not quite enough) of computer science then one ends up thinking that something like RDF is what "semantics" means: an arbitrarily far ramified graph of things joined together by relations (that are things, that are joined together...)

Disclosure: I have studied exactly 0 Computer Science. I have nil qualifications in the area. I mean, I've read this, and these, and so forth, but I've never gained a qualification in Comp Sci.

But I have built a few systems. And based on that experience, what I think the semantics of a fragment of program text is, is the change in the users' behaviour after the text is executed. And this is necessarily a localised, context-dependent thing.

Which brings us back to tests. Now, I don't much like the word "test" these days for the kind of executable document that gets written using *unit, or FIT or whatever. These days I tend to talk more about them in terms of being gauges. Anyway, the great thing about this sort of test is that it is explicit, operational, concrete and example- and exemplar-based. This is greatly at odds with the common understanding of "specification", which tries to have a sort of abstract, universal, infinitude to it but is excruciatingly hard to get right. The other approach is much easier to get right, and for good cognitive reasons, it turns out.

And this is why static typing, of whatever flavour of whizzyness, comes at the systems problem from only one, and I'd suggest the less valuable side. Prohibiting the wrong thing isn't enough, we must also encourage the right thing. And to do that we must write the right thing down. And the right thing is intimately tied up with the existential detail, of some individual in some situation at some time.

This is why I quite like Reg's proposed certification (which, by the way, I very much doubt I could get either). It isn't a certification for QA's, it's a certification for showing that you know what to do, and then showing that you've done it.