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April 12, 2012 / bikesbytesbites

Computers, Language and Metaphor

I work in computers, and have for “over 20 years” (as stated in the Experience Summary part of my resume.) When I first got into the field, I did a lot of reading on methodology and discovered a pithy description for project management (paraphrasing here):

A development project is defined by three dimensions: quality of the software; expense to develop it; and time to develop it — Features, Expense, Time. Features — the functionality wanted, bug-free and easy to use; Expense — Expenditures as budgeted ; Time — the project delivered to the end user by the originally specified due date.

But typically, there are constraints on the development team, so the project lead ends up saying to the project sponsor (again paraphrasing):

Features, Cost, Time: Pick Two.

Thus, I learned the term “Trade-Off“.  What a wonderful expression, and so applicable to non-computer situations. Also “Prioritizing”, but that doesn’t have quite the ring.

A few years later I was on an hour-long trip with my sister, with her 8-month old son in the back seat.  (The kids are now in their 20s, to give you a graphic illustration of the “over 20 years” bit.) Her son started crying and fidgeting, and, since my sister was driving, it was up to me (a non-parent) to figure it out.  After I looked puzzled and didn’t do anything constructive for a while, my sister explained the situation to me:

Look, there are a limited number of things it could be. He could be hot or cold; hungry or thirsty; sleepy; or wet.  Figure it out.

Aha — what I needed to do was debug the baby. So following the same rules I use to develop and test computer software (make a list of scenarios; test each one to see if it eliminates the problem) , I fdid figure it out and (eventually …) calmed him down.

All these years, I thought “debug the baby” was just a pretty nifty expression, a metaphor for the process of what really goes through a caretaker’s mind.  Well, it turns out that it is no longer a metaphor, but reality.  There’s an article in this month’s Atlantic that talks about a baby monitor that uploads data to a server via your WiFi network, and then provides analyses, comparing your baby to others on various developmental and behavioral scales.

Now, that’s really debugging the baby.

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