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Your humble host can be alternatively be found haunting these here tubes under many a different guise; I'd recommend starting your inquest at his usual place of residence. And there's always the Twitter.

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On code soul

(This was first written on 13 April 2004, and has had a few notes added in parentheses at the end of certain paragraphs for clarity and additional information).

Soul. Singular. We're not talking about ghosts, possibly lost. We're talking about soul, as in Miles All-Your-Soul-Are-Belong-To-Us Davis soul. And MythTV (the code part). So that's a start.

You see, MythTV is sweet. Not "candy" sweet, or "flowers" sweet: Cartman sweeeeeeet (you guys). The kind of sweet you want to take home to Mom... and rail on the kitchen table. It's that sweet.

So then, what does code, soul, and MythTV have anything to do with Microsoft? Woaaaah, who mentioned Microsoft!? Must've been a Freudian slip, but I'm sure we'll be hearing more about them in a bit.

MythTV is a homebrew PVR project done by a single programmer named Issac Richards, who, from his email address, I would guess is a student. (At the time of original writing this was true, although now I would imagine there are a fair number of contributors to the project.) Most of you have probably never heard of MythTV, nay have actually used it. But those of us that have know that it's an incredible project with a great user interface that is -- from the little I've messed with commercial PVR systems -- easily comprable to Tivo or ReplayTV, save for the fact you have to be able to set it up yourself.

Where am I going with this? Well, MythTV is a product that actually does what it's users need and want it to do (very well) and yet it is, for all intents and purposes, written by one person. Not a team with eight sub-teams, one of which spends all their time working on the talking paper clip. One dude.

Now, the kid's gotta be pretty damn smart. A virtuoso, if you will, of the art of programming. And it's reflected in the project: MythTV has code soul.

As if this rave didn't make any sense so far, it's about to get even stranger. Because now is where I start talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I know that even admitting familiarity with ST:TNG is equivalent to dropping a 100-megaton nuke on your social life, but during my formative years I tuned in every week. Thanks a lot Dad.

You see, I'm reminded of that one episode where Data -- the almost-human android with the shiny yellow skin -- is playing music in Ten Forward (bad Star Trek joke: he's playing music in Ten Forward in about half of the episodes) and he mentions that while he can play any and every piece with perfect technical proficency, yet people consistently remark that his performance seems to lack something. Lack feeling. Lack soul.

Whether the mass market realizes it or not (they don't), programming -- really beautiful, masterful software creation -- is an art. Major software projects are, after all, the most complicated artifacts human beings have ever created: the latest Linux source code package is thirty-three megabytes (and that's heavily compressed)!

The problem with art is that there is art because of art and there is art because of money. A friend and I ranting about being forced to endure some of the most worthless commercials we had ever seen, all the while Turnpike Films has some of the most brilliant and witty commercials ever made. But you'll never see them. Because none of them ever actually make it to TV. (As of the original writing you could view Turnpike's hillarious advertisments on their website: however, due to pressure from the companies for whom they developed the spots, they're not even available online anymore. If anyone reads this and has an archive of the commericals, please contact me, I would love to have them again!)

So seriously, what the hell point am I trying to make. It all comes down to this: "bad" software is deemed so not becase it doesn't get used or it doesn't work (we need look no furthur than Windows to satisfy both these conditions). It's because, just like any other piece of artwork, we judge software against the untouchable ideal of perfect beauty, in the sense of Plato's forms.

We can "sense" if the software was written by an artist who was trying to, like so many others before him or her, finally instantiate that ethereal ideal here on Earth. We can also tell when it wasn't. When it was written by one of thousands who will never aspire to produce anything that could be called "beautiful." Software like this, software that lacks soul, is just like any other piece of "pop art:" yes, MTV's latest logo is a piece of artwork, but no one will ever wonder why it wasn't place in the Louvre. Don't agree? Then tell me why Turnpike's commercials aren't aired in every city and every market. (It's really too bad you can't watch them anymore, I'm quite disapointed.)

Microsoft can hire the entire living workforce of programmers and still never create a MythTV, or a Linux, or an OS X, or any of the other million pieces of art-in-the-machine created by dedicated programmers all over the world who do so because it's art and because they are artists. Microsoft has some of the best programmers in the world working for them, this is indisputable. And ever so rarely, one of them will gain a true artistic interest in their infinitely-small task, and the result is a piece of code that just can't have come out of a corporate cube farm: it's far too brilliant.

As a whole, and almost as a rule, art produced for any enterprise wishing to exploit it is something else entirely. It completely and utterly lacks soul, because it was produced by artisans who felt nothing for its creation. Imbibing art with soul isn't a spontaneous process, it requires raw materials. When the artist has no emotions towards what he is creating (or in Data's unfortunate case, no emotions at all) a truly soulful piece of artwork can never result.

All these mispelled words and mis-structured paragraphs to say this: art is a medium which reflects back to all who look upon it its creator, and software design is an art form just like any other. Microsoft will never be able to understand whyso many programmers spend countless hours writing software simply to write software, just like Data will never be able to play a single note the way Miles did.