Monday, September 07, 2015

thank you for not smoking

The previous concept reapplied from software was the black box analysis technique. The technique metaphorically places something inside a black box, which signifies avoidance of direct scrutiny or even identification. The something's effects are examined instead, thereby circumventing the interference or the labor of knowing the something and its inner workings. The analysis proceeds through the factual details of various interactions between the something and its environment.

It's highly relevant to the goal of objective testing, because it avoids prejudices. The act of inspection is entangled in the inspector's slanted perspective, while black box tests compare clear-cut outcomes to uninfluenced expectations. If external outcomes don't satisfy neutral and sensible criteria then the something should be reevaluated, regardless of who/what it is and the characteristics it supposedly has within.

Beyond black boxes, the topic of testing software includes another broadly useful concept: smoke tests. These are rapid, shallow, preliminary, unmistakable checks that the software is minimally serviceable. The name comes from the analogy of activating electronic equipment and just seeing if it smokes. A smoke test of software runs the smallest tasks. Can it start? Can it locate the software that it teams up with? Can it load its configuration? Can it produce meaningful output at all?

No specialized expertise is necessary to notice that smoke tests are vital but also laughably inadequate. Since the software must pass much more rigorous tests, it's logical to question why smoke tests are worthwhile to perform more than once on the same software. However, the bare fact is that software seldom stays the same, especially in the middle of furious development. Thus the worth of smoke tests is more for quickly determining when a recent modification is gravely problematic. A malfunctioning smoke test implies the need to reconsider the recent modification and rectify it—probably very soon in order to prevent delays in the overall schedule.

The surprise is that smoke tests resemble a mental tactic that shows up in various informal philosophizing. Like software developers who screen their attempts with smoke tests and then promptly fix and retry in the event of failure, a follower of a belief may repeatedly rethink its specifics until it's acceptable according to the equivalent of a smoke test. In essence the follower has a prior commitment to a conclusion, which they purposely reshape so that it at least doesn't "smoke". This tactic greatly differs from carefully proposing a tentative claim after collecting well-founded corroboration. And it differs from the foundation of productive debate: the precondition that the debaters' arguments are like orderly chains from one step to the next, not like lumps of clay that continually transform to evade objections.

As might be expected, the smoke test tactic easily leads to persistent misunderstandings about aims. The unambitious aim of the tactic is a pruned belief that isn't flagrantly off-base, not a pristine belief that's most likely to be accurate. A few belief smoke tests are absurdity, contradiction with solidly established information, violation of common contemporary ethics, and so forth. (The changes might qualify as retcons.) Before they show the candor to concede that their aim is a treasured belief that isn't transparently wrong, rather than the novel belief that's plausibly right, they're mired in a loop of mending belief by trial and error.

They may justify the tactic by saying, "Of course I can't profess the most uncomplicated, unswerving variant of my belief. I know that variant can't be correct. It would be too [absurd, barbaric, intolerant, naive, infeasible, bizarre, self-contradictory]. I use my best understanding to strengthen the weak points that ring false. Doesn't everyone? Why's that a reason for criticism?"

This rationale is persuasive; to revise beliefs over time is no shortcoming. The telling difference is that everyone else isn't using the tactic on beliefs portrayed as complete, authoritative, correct, and self-supporting. It presents two issues in that case. First, why would the belief have been communicated in such a way that the recipients need to make fine-grained clarifications for the sake of succeeding at smoke tests—which are exceedingly basic, after all? Second, once someone has begun increasingly reworking the original belief to comply with their sense of reasonableness, when does the belief itself stop being a recognizable, beneficial contributor to the result? Is it not a bad sign when something requires numerous manual interventions, replacement of parts, and gentle handling, or else it swiftly proceeds to belch embarrassing smoke?

No comments:

Post a Comment