Ben Cantrick (mackys) wrote,
Ben Cantrick

_Why Software Sucks_ by David Platt

I got an email from one David Platt yesterday, asking me if I was the one who coined The Lusethropic Principle. I said indeed, I was, and the following email exchange took place:

On Tue, Feb 21, 2006 at 02:14:58PM +0000, David Platt wrote:
> Ben, I've been tracking down the strong and weak Lusethropic principles for
> a book I'm writing, and they are credited to a guy with your name. Your
> resume reads like the sort of person who had the ability to coin such a
> thing. Can I ask, was that indeed you? And references to them seem to go
> back at least 10 years, have you changed your mind at all, or do they hold
> more than ever now? Thanx,

  Wow, man! Blast from the past! ;D

  Yes indeed, I am the one who coined the Lusethropic principles.
I was in college at the time, working as an "Advisor" (read: phone tech
support) for the University of Colorado at Boulder's Computing And
Network Services department. (Now called ITServices). I had been
listening to Stephen Hawking's book _A Brief History of Time_ on
cassette tape, in one part of which the Anthropic Principles of
cosmology are discussed.

  The Strong Anthropic principle, Hawking tells us, states that the
laws of physics in the universe are so perfectly crafted to allow
beings like ourselves to exist, that it must have been created
that way on purpose.

  The Weak Anthropic principle states that the universe wasn't created
for us, rather that if the universe had been evolved into something
different than what we see today, we would not exist, and something
else would instead. In short, if things were different, we wouldn't
be here.

  The analogy to the strong and weak lusethropic principles is
fairly clear, I hope. :]

  My other witticism I recall from this period is:

  - Engineers think that mathematical equations approximate reality.
  - Scientists think that reality approximates mathematical equations.
  - Mathematicians... are unable to make the connection.

  Must have been something in the air here in our so-called
"People's Republic of Boulder." ;]

  And oh hell yes, the LP's hold just as strongly now as they ever have!
First with the web, and now with Pervasive Computing becoming a buzzword,
computers are becoming more and more easily accessable. And with that ease
of use comes a whole galaxy of people who don't bother (or perhaps are not
capable of?) turning on their brains when they turn on their computing
device(s). Email viruses that require someone to download a strange file
and run it are more pervasive than ever. Nobody ever turns off JavaScript
in their web browser in spite of it being the #1 cause of really horrible
amounts of spyware, adware, and botnet infections. Web sites like
and have made it drop-dead easy for anyone with two spare
minutes to throw up a blog or similiar, and the explosion of junk content
has been unparalleled.

  Not that this is all bad, I suppose. I have a LiveJournal, and I
post trivial junk to it all the time. Sometimes I'm surprised how
many interesting conversations it spawns among my friends. If I was
five years younger, I'd probably be using MySpace too.

  I think of the Internet as an enourmous pile of junk with a
few diamonds hidden within. To get to the diamonds requires only
enough money for an internet connection. After that there's no
monentary cost, only your time and effort. The more people we
have dumping into the pile, the bigger a chance there is to find
a diamond. (Though I couldn't tell you, offhand, if I think adding
more people increases or decreases the percentage of diamonds in the

> The new book I'm writing is aimed at end users rather than programers, the
> first time I've written for such a market. The title of the book will "Why
> Software Sucks". I have to disagree with you about dumb users, not that
> they don't exist, of course they do, and always will.  But I say that it's
> the software industry's job to adjust to its customers, as it is in every
> form of commerce, not the other way around. The automobile did not become
> ubiquitous in american society when we trained the whole population to be
> expert mechanics, but rather when cars advanced to the point where they
> no longer needed a mechanic's attention very often. I'm using the Lusethropic
> principle as an example of an attitude that needs to change.

Sounds like a neat book. Go ahead and use my name if you think it'll
make the book better. Though I certainly don't hold myself and my
fellow software engineers blameless for the sad state of software. I
mean, just for starters, how come we can never seem to write error
messages that make any sense at all?

  The car thing is an interesting analogy. I love my Honda for its
reliability, but I certainly know what a spark plug, fuel injector,
and brake master cylinder are too. Programmers certainly SHOULD
write good, robust fault-tolerant software. But we can't be sitting
in the passenger seat 24/7, repeatedly preventing the people who drive
our cars from running straight into telephone poles either. And we do,
after all require a testable level of skill before you're allowed to
legally drive a car. The question in my mind is, where's the happy
medium between idiot-proofing and user responsibility? I don't have
an answer to that one at the moment...


So it looks like I have indeed served my purpose in life - I am now officially a warning to other people. ;]

The book is in the early stage, so nothing is up at the website,, yet. But keep an eye out. David was nice enough to let me read the first chapter, and it's both hilarious and eye-opening.
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