The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Let Us First Make It or And Now I Saw, Though Too Late, or Robinson Crusoe: A Book For All Computing Seasons (Parallels between Robinson Crusoe and the work of computer analysts and programmers)
by Robert Taylor

graphic of page


by Robert Taylor

Teachers College, Columbia University

Upon re-reading Robinson Crusoe recently, I was struck by the numerous parallels
between the activities of Crusoe on his island and the work of today's analysts
and programmers. Crusoe laid plans; established timetables; implemented
solutions, modified his implementations, and occasionally even abandoned them;
provided backup for various system components; and so forth. One might even
argue that he trained a junior programmer or analyst named Friday.


The book is so rich in readable case studies appropriate for today's analyst or
programmer to ponder that any computing professional would do well to read (or
re-read) it at his earliest convenience. Why should what many regard as the
first novel in the English language be so appropriate to today's analysts and
programmers? Because Defoe was a good story-teller and because human problem
solving hasn't changed as much as we sometimes like to imagine. Consider just
two examples from Defoe's text: (1) Robinson Crusoe's unsuccessful attempt to
escape from his island by building his own dugout canoe and (2) his successful
attempt to guard against the catastrophic loss of his goat herd. The first
illustrates how need causes the desperate to overlook fatal design flaws and
attempt impossible implementations. The second illustrates the design and
implementation of a backup system.

Attempting to implement a catastrophically flawed system
The first illustration concerns Crusoe's attempt to build a dugout canoe with
which he can escape from the island. Note that the seductive attractiveness of a
portion of the system (building the canoe) clouds his critical insight into the
major flaw of the overall system (launching the canoe once it's built).

At length, I began to think whether it was not possible to make myself a canoe,
or periagua, such as the natives of these climates make, even without tools, or,
as I might say, without hands, of the trunk of a great tree. This I not only
thought possible, but easy, and pleased myself extremely with the idea of making
it, and with my having much more convenience for it than any of the Negroes or
Indians; but not at all considering the particular inconveniences which I lay
under more than the Indians did, viz., the want of hands to move it into the
water when it was made, a difficulty much harder for me to surmount than all the
consequences of want of tools could be to them: for what could it avail me, if,
after I had chosen my tree, and with much trouble cut it down, and might be able
with my tools to hew and dub the outside into the proper shape of a boat, and
burn or cut the inside to make it hollow, so as to make a boat of it -- if,
after all this, I must leave it just where I found it, and was not able to
launch it into the water?

One would imagine, if I had had the least reflection upon my mind of my
circumstances while I was making this boat, I should have immediately thought
how I was to get it into the sea: but my thoughts were so intent upon my voyage
in it, that I never once considered how I should get it off the land; and it was
really, in its own nature, more easy for me to guide it over forty-five miles of
sea, than the forty-five fathoms of land, where it lay, to set it afloat in the

I went to work upon this boat the most like a fool that ever man did, who had
any of his senses awake. I pleased


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