Hacking and Other Thoughts

Thu, 21 May 2009


Beaux-Arts and kernel hacking...

My recent hobbies have included an intense study of New York City architecture, and in particular the facinating stories behind the city's two most prominent train stations. That being Grand Central Terminal and the arguably infamous Pennsylvania Station .


McKimm, Meade, and White's masterpiece at 42nd Street and 3rd Ave.

In the second half of the 19th century and on towards the first half of the 20th century, any American architect worth his salt studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

If you had a degree from that school, you were at the top of the pile for selection on all of the interesting commisions of the time. The school presented the student with a challenging and fast paced curriculum.

Firstly, for these American students attending in Paris, the first challenge was just getting in. The entrance exam (of course) required at least some proficiency in French. Several of the most notable American architects had the retake this entrace exam 5 or more times before being able to pass.

Once accepted, the student was pressed to solve problems. 12 hours were given to draft up a solution to a real architectual problem. Then once the draft was accepted, the student had 2 weeks to flesh out all of the details and present the final design. All the while the student's progress was critiqued by an established French architect who oversaw a group of students.

We really don't have that kind of training for computer science people. It's not even science I would say. This kind of training does exist for pure mathmatics, espcially in France.

Envision a school where you're asked to draft up the design of a compiler pass in 12 hours, then for two weeks you implement it, and meanwhile Alfred Aho critiques your work. This kind of place simply doesn't exist. (Yes I know Alfred teaches at Columbia currently, so maybe this specific place does exist :-) but I maintain that more generally such institutions do not exist)

Open source development and "throwing the masses of monkeys at the problem" seems to be a logical consequence of this, does it not?

A formally trained Beaux-arts architect and a room with a few drafters could design something as insanely complicated as a huge transportation hub in the middle of New York City. And it would work, as there would be no room for failure. To me it seems that someone similarly trained could do a complete operating system, compiler, or similar large software engineering task.

McKimm, Meade, and White were three architects and a couple drafters, and yet they were able to complete works such as Boston Public Library, Pennsylvania Station, and the James Farley Post Office. To just name a few.

So which is better, strict formal training and mentorship or open source monkeys? You decide!