On pains and brains

A while back, I wrote a post on why software should feel pain. Since then, I’ve had that lesson reinforced in my mind, and I’ve also understood some nuances that weren’t obvious to me before, so I’m revisiting the topic.

The Reinforcer

What brought this topic back to my mind was a root cause analysis I did to diagnose a recent system failure. I’ll spare you the gory details, but here’s what happened in a nutshell: a daemon got bad data files and began behaving strangely as a result. The replication process for its data files had been impaired because the app producing the data files finished much later than normal. That app in turn was impacted by anomalous network brownouts which began with a partly damaged network cable.

The Obvious but Naive Lesson

The final step in my root cause analysis was to make recommendations, and I was quick to offer some: the daemon should double-check the integrity of its data file; the originating app should monitor its timing and complain about anomalies.

The more I thought about it, however, the more unhappy I became. Surely, such monitoring is a good idea. So why did I not believe my recommendations would really make things better?


The pain pathway is more than nerves in the toes; it runs all the way back to the brain. From René Descartes’s Treatise of Man. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Taming Side Agreements

When I was a technical director at Symantec, I had to formally certify at the end of each quarter that I had not entered into any “side agreements” with customers.

A side agreement is any arrangement that takes place out-of-band, off-the-books, or using private channels not normally examined by accountants. In business, they are usually a bad thing; they can be used to build Enron- or Madoff-style house-of-cards revenue pipelines that are gleaming and glittery at first glance, but that are ripe for collapse because they’re full of hidden caveats and preconditions.

The former Enron towner, now owned by Chevron. Image credit: DaveWilsonPhotography (Flickr)

The problem of side agreements might not impinge on the consciousness of software engineers much, except when they grumble that sales or execs or product management is “selling the roadmap” instead of shipping features. But would you believe me if I said that engineers perpetrate their own Enron-esque side agreements all the time?

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Why Your Software Should Cry

The problem of pain has bothered philosophers–particularly those with a religious bent–for a long time. What might be the purpose of suffering, they’ve wondered, and how does it relate to the human experience?

But pain barely impinges on the thinking of software engineers at all. Computers never wince, or complain, or mourn the loss of a favorite program (Marvin the paranoid android excepted). An OS runs at full speed until the instant when its kernel “panics” without warning; once you reboot, it acts as if nothing ever happened. No sniffles, no whimpers, no scabs…

photo credit: nanny snowflake (Flickr)

This is unfortunate.

Reaction to stimuli is one of the 8 characteristics of life. That means that living things are aware, in some sense, of their relationship to the larger environment. They distinguish between good and bad stimuli. They hurt. And they learn from their pain.

Lessons from a protist

This ability to use pain is not limited to complex organisms. The lowly Stentor roeselii (a single-celled protozoan that anchors for filter feeding) exhibits an incredible repertoire of behaviors to optimize its relationship with the environment. Squirt it with water from a pipette, and it contracts for defense. 30 seconds later, it unfurls again. Keep squirting, and it eventually learns to ignore the false alarms.

Gently introduce a poison into the water current, Continue reading