Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Mobius Strip

“Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.” Sherlock Holmes.

Mob Software: The Erotic Life of Code, An Essay in First Person by Richard P. Gabriel & Ron Goldman writes a new chapter in the continuing open-source software saga that began with The Cathedral and the Bazaar . Both are fascinating reads and highly recommend, but I want to remunerate on a bit of etymology relating to the essay. In it they quote the Oxford English dictionary definition of mob as, "A multitude or aggregation of persons regarded as not individually important."

They then deliver the central message: "...We know how to produce small portions of software using small development teams—up to 10 or so—but we don’t know how to make software any larger except by accident or by rough trial and error. ... The way out of this predicament is this simple: Set up a fairly clear architectural direction, produce a decent first cut at some of the functionality, let loose the source code, and then turn it over to a mob."

I was stuck by how apropos the word mob seemed in this context. I recalled reading in one of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books, probably The System of the World, that the origin of the word mob is a shortening form of "mobility" and was first used in a kind of play on words as the opposite of "nobility." A London aristocrat was publicly decrying the rise of a new class of interloping vagabonds who dared to come and go as they pleased, apprenticed to no one, earning their bread wherever they could find work in the new economy.

Sound familiar? It could be an precursor of the post-dot-com practice of programmers finding work via the web on whatever projects that interest them, and getting by, just fine thank you.

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