The Genius Of Concrete

Posted on October 9, 2019

Note: I have taken a break from whatever it is that I usually crap on about to do some opinions. Beware.

Whimsical Story

When I was much younger I was what you might call “quite a trying child”. Apparently, a thing I liked was to ask lots of questions.

One that I remember very clearly was this:

“Where do washing machines come from?”

(A reasonable, if somewhat tangental question I suppose. I can’t remember why I was interested.)

“A washing machine”, they told me, “is made in a washing-machine-making-machine.”

Very well, I thought. But that wasn’t enough.

“So where do the washing-machine-making-machines come from?”

(That’ll fox them.)

“Ahh, well you see”, the reply went “those washing-machine-making-machines are made by washing-machine-making-machine-making-machines”

This went on as you might predict. I won’t bore you with what was obviously some sort of early lesson in the dangers of unsupervised recursion, but as you can imagine, it was machine-making-machines all the way down in my dreams for months after that.

Did you really just google ‘horrible washing machine’ and put the first one you found in your blog?.

Anyway. There was a point to this. Or at least I thought there was when I couldn’t get to sleep and decided I needed to get up and write all this down.


So when using the computers and things, we generally start with very concrete problems, such as “how we make a washing machine”, and then later, “also, how can we put another light on this machine machine that blinks when the washing is ready?”.

Now, being close to the metal, as such, the manual manufacturer of said washing machine is not going to have too much trouble (crudely, perhaps) adding such a light and making it work. After all, they are equipped with washing machine making tools (hammer? wrench? screwdriver? bear with me here) for the job.

But is the true work of an engineer?

The trouble is, nobody makes washing machines by hand anymore, at least not for long. Once the maker has gotten the hang of things they think “this work is very manual and perhaps somewhat beneath me now, surely we can make this easier?”

Soon enough, their days with the hammer, the wrench and the screwdriver are wasted, as they have constructed the washing-machine-maker.

It was probably something like this.

We are all very pleased about this development.

It really is good stuff. We’re making washing machines at a much quicker pace now, and soon somebody hires in some consultants who point out that we could be Scaling A Lot Better if we abstract further. Soon enough, they’re right - and through a mixture of capitalism and boredom the washing-machine-making-machine-maker is born.

It was probably something like this.


One thing we notice in making the even bigger machine is that many of the parts in the big machine aren’t as specialised as we thought, and we replace them with a combination of more general parts that are tried and tested. This is generally agreed to be good engineering practice, plus additionally the tried and tested stuff breaks less and is cheaper, so everybody involved is having a positive time.

It’s not long until somebody points out that with a little tweaking, we can expand and have a higher level machine called the washing-machine-and-also-fridge-making-machine-maker-machine-maker that is also capable of making something that may at one point end up making a fridge as well. Business is booming.

It was probably something like this.

Oh shit.

But wait. A new requirement has been found.

The washing machine needs Another Light on it. This one is a new colour, not found in washing machines or fridges. The customer bought one of our first fridges and was impressed with how quickly they had worked for him. However now changing the washing machine isn’t a job for a hammer, a wrench or a screwdriver anymore, it’s going to require changes to the washing-machine-and-also-fridge-making-machine-maker-machine-maker to change the washing-machine-making-machine-maker to construct a washing-machine-maker that will output the required washing-machine.

It’d probably be quicker to knock it all down and start over, but now we’ve got a shitload of fridges to worry about too.

Oh shit indeed.

Get to the point, you goddamn meandering jerk.

My point here is that the recursive levels of washing machine creating abstractions here are taking us further and further from our real aim here, which in this already stretched allegory seems to be “maintain an ability to add lights to washing machines in a timely manner as and when users of said machine take an interest in such.”

These building blocks, they’re all very well, but why did we really start this? Was it because we needed to? Or because we were bored of building fridges?

Let’s talk about concrete.

So. Concrete is shit.

(That is to say - it has very little value. I don’t know what it’s made of, and looking it up now on Wikipedia would seem somewhat insincere, but I’m pretty sure it’s not made of actual shit)

However, I am pretty confident you can make things out of it.

Hole in the floor? Pour that shit in!

Need a wall? Slop that shit up!

Got it wrong? Smash that shit to pieces!

(People can visit the Barbican all they like, it does not change the fact that nobody in human history has been or ever will be emotionally attached to the stuff.)

It’s basically ‘big sand’.

Let’s not be mistaken - our collection of recursive white goods factories are very nice. They may be the solution sometimes. But what I think bothers me most about them is just how much emotional investment we end up having in them. When they’re wrong, we don’t abandon ship, but instead save our precious work, bending it to our new needs, however grossly deformed the result.

So, What Am I Suggesting?

How about just being boring? Would that be so wrong?

Sure, concrete code is boring code to write, and nobody wants to be bored, or worse, boring by association with it.

It is easy to understand though (and even easier to delete) because it’s not wrapped up in 5 other levels of abstraction. Do you really need to solve the meta-problem of your problem? Perhaps! I’m not suggesting there aren’t generalised problems worth solving, but check you’re not just doing it because your actual problem isn’t interesting enough.

Don’t wrap your self-worth up in your cleverness. That way lies, at best, sadness, and at worst, singletons.

Solve the thing, have a nice time, go home.

There’ll be another problem tomorrow, and this time you might be ready to solve it rather than label it “scope creep” for not fitting yesterday’s solution.

If your work ends up getting thrown away (it will), fine.

It was made of shit anyway.