Please avoid recycling the "considered harmful" trope

Articles and essays titled "$thing Considered Harmful" are an age-old cliché in computer science, harking back to Edsger Dijkstra’s 1987 paper “Go To Statement Considered Harmful”.

Recently a few more posts like this have popped up here and in the Clojure sphere at large. It makes for catchy (click-baity?) titles, but I would like to humbly implore people to avoid them.

The way I see them used is to whip up debate about issues that are fundamentally about trade-offs. $thing is not actually harmful, the author has merely found a context in which $thing is suboptimal.
To frame it with such a title comes across as brusque, and in my opinion it does not encourage friendly and respectful debate. (That the debates generally still are friendly and respectful speaks to the merit of this community.) Some people find these titles actively off-putting, I think this is doubly true for newcomers, and we’ve had posts flagged because of this.

It is also worth noting that Dijkstra’s style of communication would likely not be welcomed on this forum today. (from Wikipedia:)

Dijkstra was famous for his wit, eloquence, rudeness, abruptness and often cruelty to fellow professionals, and way with words, such as in his remark, “The question of whether Machines Can Think (…) is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines Can Swim.”;[100] his advice to a promising researcher, who asked how to select a topic for research, “Do only what only you can do”.[11] Dijkstra was also known for his vocal criticism and absence of social skills when interacting with colleagues. As an outspoken and critical visionary, he strongly opposed the teaching of BASIC.[101]

It’s a small thing, please avoid these tired, old, and overly negative tropes.

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It’s worth noting that the cliché had been in use well before Dijkstra, and that his CACM paper was originally titled “A Case Against the GOTO Statement”, changed before publication by Niklaus Wirth.

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Ninja’ed by @nathell

So can we all agree that “Considered Harmful” is considered harmful?

And please let’s not end up turning a full circle into bashing people with poor social skills. They’ve probably had a hard enough time as it is. We’re all limited in some ways, some more just abrasive than others

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Probably a good time to trot out this classic quote from Alan Kay:

I don’t know how many of you have ever met Dijkstra, but you probably know that arrogance in computer science is measured in nano-Dijkstras.

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When users report that they don’t feel comfortable with certain posts then we take that seriously. In this case it’s a small thing we can keep in mind when making choices, to stay within the spirit of ClojureVerse, which is to be maximally friendly, welcoming, and inclusive. It’s a friendly suggestion, not an official policy. I am not going to call out anyone or touch any existing posts. It’s something people can consider and decide for themselves what they want to do with it going forward.

We are an international community, with users spanning multiple cultures and social norms, and potentially including children and teenagers. As with Postel’s law we should be mindful in how we behave ourselves, and assume no ill will when interpreting the behavior of others.

Beyond that we do also have rules for how we deal with rude, cruel, demeaning, abrasive behavior (showing little concern for the feelings of others; harsh), starting with engaging the person through a private message under the assumption of no ill will, and potentially ending with a ban. This has never been necessary so far, but because of the paradox of tolerance, we reserve the right to not tolerate certain behaviors.

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All in all, I feel you. I can say that I have felt rubbed to wrong way by reactions to my posts in the past as well. Still don’t know if I’m overreacting and need to grow a thicker skin or if it’s legitimate, but I can always get on board with “Be excellent to each other”

Our differences in reading Poppers intention are out of this thread’s scope, I think

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In addition to being hyperbole, it’s also deeply lazy to recycle old paper titles rather than finding your own way to express yourself.

Aside: Dijkstra was very smart, but – amusingly enough – not entirely correct in that famous paper. For a practical example, note the number of goto statements in this popular open source project.

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Seems like there is an essay about this very topic “Considered Harmful” Essays Considered Harmful

I fully agree with the social aspects. Slightly more on the technical side, Rich Hickey made a great observation saying “Programmers know the benefits of everything and the tradeoffs of nothing”. Engineering is all about tradeoffs and these tradeoffs are different for every specific case. Global statements like “considered harmful”, apart from coming across as brusque, are always an overly-broad generalization that ignores certain use cases and does not consider that different cases might need different tradeoffs.

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That’s actually such a better title. I’ve always found that $thing considered harmful, the word “considered” seems to imply an unproven hypothesis, and a trend. Like, you can’t even tell if the article will talk about how the current “consideration” is wrong, or it’s going to claim that it should be considered as such.

That’s because some definition of “to consider” mean “to believe” and “to suppose”. No technical article in my opinion should make an argument on belief, and a title implying some belief seems kind of unclear.

Imagine: “$thing believed harmful”. That’s what I hear when I see “$thing considered harmful”.

Instead: “A case against” is so much more precise, I know someone will discuss a case where the use of $thing led to problems.

But it leaves one type of articles which I’m not sure how you’d title them. The ones that would actually discuss an hypothesis without backing data or examples. Something like: “Are static types actually beneficial?” Or it could be framed the other way around: “Are static types actually harmful?”. And maybe it makes a tacit claim, like I can’t say why or point to data or examples showing the outcome, but I feel it is from expert intuition.

So I could see something trying to explain why is something currently believed to be good or bad, and something trying to provide experiment and data to backup or refute an existing belief. Though “$thing considered harmful” would still be a terrible title for that, but I could see: “Is $thing really harmful?” and “Is $thing really beneficial” as possibly good titles.

When I was working at the university with Geophysics, there were a couple of articles without backing data at the oil industry, but there were some examples of successes from people that followed the expert heuristics. I can’t remember if there was something particular about the titles of those articles, but for sure they spent a lot of effort carefully describing the assumptions where those heuristics appears to hold true.

Perhaps a title like “Are static types actually harmful when working with information systems at small-sized companies in a very competitive market?” would be ok.

It’s not a hill I want to die on, and I definitely will respect the moderator’s opinions and rules on this, but for the sake of discussion I always liked the “considered harmful” trope. I remember discovering it in college and found it kinda funny that it’s a prehistoric meme that played out in technical writing from the 70s through to the present, and thinking “only in Computer Science…”.

I understand negativity is best avoided but occasionally criticism is interesting and/or warranted, and I actually like the convention of “considered harmful”. To me it sets the tone that “This is going to be an opinionated piece of writing bashing something, grab the popcorn”. To me the familiarity of the trope took some of the negative edge off of what might otherwise be titled “I don’t like X” or “X is bad”, or really any other title of a technical criticism. Of course, we could title things “I like Y” and “Y is good” and keep the X bashing implicit. But personally I am fine with the occasional direct criticism in the myriad of daily text I read.

That said, it’s interesting and useful to me to learn that this isn’t a universal fondness. I never thought that deeply about it and I can see now how it could be annoying.

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For the record, I don’t find “the trope” at all negative. In fact, just the reverse, I find it useful. When I see that kind of title, I immediately know “the likely orientation and thrust” of the post. It acts as a shortcut for me. And that helps me to know if I want to read it (or not) more quickly. A more obscure title would probably be of less use to me if I’m scanning titles, looking for posts of interest.

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Hmm. The “great observation” you quote is itself something of a trope. Rich Hickey was repackaging the original comments by Perlis. And it was great. And yet, if someone was very sensitive, Rich Hickey’s point could somehow be imagined to be “brusque”. But, in my opinion, tropes are generally fine - they generally exist because they capture (perhaps tersely and firmly) a piece of sage advice or perception which is useful to repeat and emphasise. Used wisely, they do good. Used not wisely, they don’t. As is the way of all things in the world.

idk. somehow this topic makes me feel bad for mr. dijkstra. i mean, pobody is nerfect, right? also compared to other great intellectuals like newton, beethoven etc. etc. he seams rather harmless / agreeable to me. so maybe we should cut him some slack? again, idk. anyway, here is a nice quote from the accused, which should certainly meet the quality standards / requirements of this discussion forum:

Beauty Is Our Business

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having given this some more thought, i now want to change my “i don’t know” to a somewhat more forceful “i am not feeling entirely happy about this”.

why?

well for one thing this strongly reminded me of the following:

now i am not going to comment on this, nor on mr. trump and the job he is doing as president, for surly i would end up becoming the first user with a ban:

and i really would hate for that to happen!

why?

well not because i think that the people in the clj community are exceptionally righteous ( …also, and by no means do i wanna imply the opposite being the case… ), but because i think that not only tend the clj-folks to be extraordinarily bright, but also very generous in sharing their knowledge and know-how with those who seek it.

p.s. when i did first seriously! consult nietzsche on his views on morality, i found it to be a revelation!!! and should you not already be familiar with his thinking on the matter, not only do i want to recommend him highly to you, but URGE you to seek him out. now you may not like hearing / being told some of the things he has to say, for it will force you to take a hard and critical look at yourself, and, lets face it, nobody likes doing that too much, but surely you’ll be rewarded with a much deeper insight into who you really are. ( … you might be surprised! :smile: … )

p.p.s. i know i said that i will not comment on the matter, and i wont, still i could perhaps remind you, that at least from the times of alcibiades, whenever a sex-scandal was involved, people would react in highly questionable ways!

Would it be considered harmful to title a post “X considered beneficial”? (I’m only half joking. There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write, for other reasons, and I think it might be … beneficial to give it that sort of title. But maybe the allusion to “considered harmful” in “considered beneficial” would be, you know–harmful. I’m absolutely willing to forgo fun title-making for the sake of community harmony.)

Seems benign to me, as mentioned the above advice is a fairly minor thing, use your best judgement.

It does seem like this thread is splitting up, discussing two different things. One minor, one major…

Thank you for bringing up RMS. This is a perfect example of the paradox of tolerance. RMS’s behavior has been problematic for decades, this was widely known, but tolerated, thus sending a signal to the outside world that this was all ok.

If we are going to feel sorry for RMS, can we also have a moment of silence for all the open source contributors we lost because they saw his behavior and concluded this was not a scene they wanted to be part of? We have lost an untold amount of contribution and innovation because of this.

People make mistakes and do stupid stuff sometimes, we all have a fair share of unconscious bias because of the society we grow up in, but as adults we are also able to learn, reflect, apologize and do better. If you refuse to do any of that then don’t be surprised that eventually you are held accountable for your actions.

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just to be clear on something. in no way am i trying defend everything RMS has ever done / SAID. ( in fact, personally, i do find those things, which he has been rightly attacked and criticized for, to be outrageous!!! and intolerable!!! and would i have been present when he said those things, i wish i would have had the courage to stand and speak up against him / them. also, a good portion of the mails i have exchanged with RMS could certainly not be described as friendly conversations. )

having said that, seams to me that if you take a step back, RMS is certainly not the monster / villain he is made out to be. for example, let me bring up mr. trump again as a comparison,… just to give one an idea of what it is one is talking about here, i.e. to remind us all of the misconduct that RMS is being accused for and how that fits into the greater picture.

so when i see how RMS has been butchered!!! i can not help feeling sorry for someone who seams to me is struggling has hard as he possibly can to conduct an honorable, upright and moral life.

especially since i can not help but to think that some who are ( acting? ) so scandalized by his moral-failures and shortcomings may in fact be involved themselves in much more questionable affairs and dealings.

same goes for mr. dijkstra. now i do not know nearly as much about him as about RMS, but he has died in 2002, so, idk, when i see him basically being attacked for his idiosyncrasies / failures ( when he clearly is in no position to defend himself and when to even bring his person up in the first place seams not entirely necessary to the argument… ) …idk…

so… i just feel like it would be much much better not to point our finger at the shortcomings of others, and not to preach too much about morality, when there seams really like nothing is to be gained form that, other than to perhaps highlight our own moral superiority and righteousness. i mean, i have been reading a good deal of the posts in this forum, for what? a year perhaps? and never have i seen anything that i would have thought came even close to warrant such conduct-reminders. ( …also i have had a look at the X considered harmful topics and i just do not see anything worth worrying too much about there… not saying it is necessarily the best title, i just don’t think it is that big a deal, tbh… )

in other words, i would suggest to simply let people continue writing the way they have been, without instilling a weird sense of insecurity about what they may or may not be supposed / allowed to say / type. since, well, again, doesn’t seam to me like there is something that needs to be corrected here. but again maybe that is just me. i mean, one of my posts has been flagged as being offensive / abusive in the past, yet never have i been told by whom it has been flagged nor why… so… idk…

…hmm… well… i am running out of time now… perhaps i will give this some more thought later and reply again…

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I think I generally agree, this conversation has gotten way off track.

This forum does not see a lot of moderation, and I think so far that’s mostly fine. I hope… I don’t read everything that’s posted here, and rely on people reporting if things get out of hand.

Sometimes things get reported where I don’t immediately see what the problem is. Does that mean it’s not a problem, or that I’m privileged enough to not have to consider certain things a problem? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but I do make an effort to see things from the perspective of the person reporting. Is this actionable? is there something we can do to make things better? In this case actually doing something about the posts seemed excessive, I don’t think anyone did anything wrong. Instead I decided to use it as an opportunity to let people reflect on how we can, maybe, do better.

Social norms on open source forums and mailing lists vary, some of them can be downright hostile. A lot of them are middle of the road, some casual sexism, some curt responses, some gratuitous bashing of technology communities they look down upon. ClojureVerse makes an effort to be on the other end of that spectrum. That means that we do encourage people to think twice about what or how they post, not out of fear to be called out, but out of a desire to be a positive presence. Minding how we employ our language is a small thing that we can do to collectively raise this community up.

Despite the code of conduct and welcome message maybe not everyone realizes that this is an explicit goal that we have here. A conversation like this one won’t hurt in that case to make that more visible. Maybe some people decide that they don’t want to be part of this community because of it, that’s a helpful filter, while others may decide that this makes it a community worth investing in.

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