“How hard can it be?” – on coding, chess and eloPosted: February 24, 2012
It happens to all programmers. After some preliminary work, you’re at the point where you can see the solution with your mind’s eye, and all that’s left to be done is to write the code. You split it into steps that you think will bring you success, and start coding. Quickly, you realize it’s not so simple, and a few days later you get a version running but you’re not happy with it. It’s fragile, big, and performing awfully. It has the elegance of a drinking giraffe, and you feel disappointed. Many programmers say to themselves at this point: ‘How hard can it be?’.
Even worse, their managers, who can’t code to save their lives, will ask the same question.
Let me share an insight that comforts me at times like these. I will try to answer that exact question.
A Lower Bound
I will cheat a bit, as trying to establish exactly how difficult programming is is too difficult for me. So I will settle for a lower bound. Let’s find something that’s actually easier than programming. Well, chess seems to be a good candidate.
Chess is a limited game. Its entire universe consists of only 64 squares. There are two armies of maximum 16 pieces, each piece following some simple rules. Players take turns. Each player moves a piece (exceptionally 2) and tries to mate his opponent. In the starting position, one has only 20 possible moves, and a complex position has some 50 possible moves (I have seen composed positions with more than 200 moves) of which maybe 10 seem actually playable. A game can last 200 moves, but a typical game hardly reaches 50 moves. In the end, you can only have a finite amount of possible positions.
Programming on the other hand is far less limited. You can combine algorithms, data structures, programming languages and paradigms in almost an infinite number of combinations. As you write code, the only thing holding you back is that you have to produce something that’s acceptable to the syntax of the programming language you’re using. Other than that you’re free. A programming language like Java has a simple (compared to C++ at least) grammar, but still is very rich in possibilities. You can take the grammar to build small classes. You can then take these classes, and combine them like Lego, to build more complex building blocks, ad infinitum. Event better, your playground (the hardware you work against) becomes more and more powerful so you can try things that were impossible just a few years ago. Compared it to chess, it seems that in programming you can combine pieces and build new ones, enlarge the board, and so on. Come to think of it, it’s safe to say programming is as least as complex as chess.
If someone would still have doubts, I can say that we build chess playing programs that will beat any human. How far are we on programming programs? Ok, Chess is indeed a lower bound. Programming is at least as hard as Chess. It might be a lot harder, but that is too hard to prove, so I’ll settle for ‘at least as hard’.
Let’s talk about Chess some more. It is actually quite a mature game. The first professional supposedly was Abu-Bakr Muhammad ben Yahya as-Suli (854-946). He was the strongest player of his time, and author of a book describing a systematic way of playing Shatranj. Apparently, in the Arab World, one can still occasionally hear the complement “he played like Yahya as-Suli”. But he played one of chess’s predecessors.
Modern chess has been around for more than half a millenium, and people are quite surprised to learn that some of the standard manoeuvres have been around that long.
For example, every chess player knows the Lucena position shown below
which is attributed to Luis Ramirez de Lucena, who wrote a chess book published in 1497 (you read correctly: 1497!).
There are a great many chess books around. Google books answers intitle:chess with more than 200000 results. Only a minority of these books concern beginners as most of these target club players and above. It’s also funny to note that such a limited game is rich enough for lot of new books to be published every year.
About Chess Players
One of the interesting things about chess is that every player has an elo rating. This allows you to see exactly how good a player is, and it allows you to calculate the odds of a player winning a game against another player. Fide keeps records of the ratings, and has an online database you can browse. For example, let’s take two of the best players in the world, and compare them.Top dog Magnus Carlsen currently has a rating of 2835. If he’d play the number one US player Hikaru Nakamura, who currently has a rating of 2759, he will score about 0.60, or score about 6 points in a 10 game match.
import math def expected(r_a,r_b): d = r_b - r_a e = d / 400.0 n = 1 + math.pow(10,e) return 1.0/n print expected(2835, 2759)
A person’s chess rating evolves in time. If one scores better than one’s rating predicts, the rating will go up, and vice versa. Improving your chess skill equals an elo gain. For example, Anish Giri’s evolution can be found here. In fact, elo is so prevalent, that people use it to refer to an opponent: it is even more important than the opponents name. If a chess player wants to show his game to a collegue, he will say something like:”I’ve beaten a 1900 yesterday. Let me show you how it went”.
As it turns out, chess is too hard a problem for most people to master. A master (see International Master) has a rating somewhere above 2400. It is a level only a few people ever achieve (about 1 or 2 percent of chess enthusiasts world wide).
Personally, I can testify it is very difficult: I started playing at the age of 17, invested countless hours, read (at least bought) more than one hundred books, and I only reached a level of 2000. There are some defects in my game I just cannot seem to eliminate, so I must limit my ambition. Talking to people about the reasons for this, they say the main reason is that I started too late. Anyway, if I put in some more effort, maybe I can reach 2100. Maybe.
So You Think You Can Code?
Ok, let’s go back to programming. We asserted before that it is at least as difficult as chess, and then learned chess is actually very difficult. So programming is really really hard. A way to improve is by doing it, analysing where you went wrong, and iterate, hoping you improve while doing this.
Just like chess, reading a book about it will not make you a better programmer. If you’re lucky, and read a good book on the topic (be it chess or programming), you will get some insights in what you are doing wrong. But these insights themselves will not magically improve you. So you need to put in hard effort. Some of the things I learned that will help you do that effort are:
- Tackle a new type of problem (a chess engine, a rendering engine, a distributed key value store, a compiler, …)
- Learn a new programming language
- Learn a new programming paradigm(FP,OO,Declarative)
- Learn a new platform(GPU,FPGA,…)
- Learn from a better programmer
Master Coders, Anyone?
Whatever the activity, some humans will be better than others. As with chess, in programming, there will exist some people that have reached ‘mastery’. But, I’m a sceptic. I haven’t seen any. Moreover, as long as we don’t have anything in place like programmer elo I can claim they haven’t been observed. Actually, programmer elo can function as a discriminator for authors too, just like it does for chess books (chess book written by a non-master are rare, and being a master is not a guarantee you’ll write a good book either, but that’s an entirely different discussion)
I’m quite annoyed by the books that come out telling me how to code or to organize the software development process, from people who are clueless. Long gone are the days I used to attach value to a thing merely because it was written down in a book. In fact, the more somebody tells me how to do it, the more suspicious I become. This is a direct result from my interaction with chess masters. Sometimes I ask advice from a chess master on a problem I faced, and most of the time they answer in a sort of fuzzy wordings like “I think you probably should try to arrange your pieces something like this …”. The same position, when shown to a lower rated player often leads to an explanation like this: “you need to first take here and then there, and push that pawn”. How can it be that the same position is unclear to a master, while it is clear to a patzer ? I think it comes from respect for the complexity of game. If you see more, you fear more.
Basically, I think two things are worth remembering from this post. First, programming is really really hard. Second, it would be beneficial if there would be a programmer elo. It would at least prevent some authors of gathering enough courage to publish a book on programming. It would certainly allow better hiring decisions, and maybe could help you earn the money you deserve for your efforts. Or are you overpaid?
Some people remarked something like programmer elo couldn’t be done because programming isn’t a head-to-head competition. As it turns out, this is not necessary. Sites like chesstempo.com show that you can also compete against puzzles. What happens there is that a competitor gets a puzzle. If he solves it, he collects points from the puzzle and the puzzle loses rating points. If the user fails, the puzzle collects points from the user. This way not only the users get sorted, but also the puzzles, which allows the site to always present users puzzles that more or less fit their level. The same concept can be used for any kind of test/examination. The good thing is that people get a tool to calculate their level and can work to improve it. Exactly the kind of feedback loop one needs.