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severalog

Distant faces in the code

Harry Caufield

The Little Printf

With just a bit of background, you can probably tell that the material at the link above is:

  1. Essentially a version of The Little Prince
  2. For programmers/coders/computer people

It'll probably make sense if you've never read The Little Prince but might not if you're not familiar with things like printf. Without spoiling too much, I can tell you that The Little Printf is about why we code, or more broadly, what we get distracted by in the process of using computers.*

I worry about this frequently. I worry about whether my work in bioinformatics will produce anything resembling real biological phenomena. I worry about whether anyone will ever read my work, and if they do so, whether they'll find it useful or even usable. I worry about the time required to write and maintain code and when new technology (perhaps a new sequencing method, or even a well-curated data set) will render my work obsolete.

OK, I'll spoil a bit here: 

In the end though, it is only when you solve problems with a human face that you can feel truly right; What is essential is invisible to the computer.

Computers don't worry about how relevant their work is or whether they'll become obsolete. The people using them certainly do. Keeping the "human face" behind each problem isn't easy, though, especially with bioinformatics, where that human face may be several steps removed from the coding process. My work tends to have more of a bacterial face than anything else. So, instead, it ends up being a bit more about why we study biology in the first place.

What do we hope to find by swimming in all this data? What can we learn from it? How will that learning benefit humanity? Is the learning its own benefit, or is it a distraction? Can it be both?

*I am reminded, as usual, of _why's CLOSURE, though CLOSURE is immeasurably more opaque and potentially about how coding is inherently distancing. The theme of Why We Code remains.