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It's Not About Your Simplicity, It's About Your Audience's Capability - Elf M. Sternberg
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It's Not About Your Simplicity, It's About Your Audience's Capability

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein


This quote annoys me. I’ve spent the last year trying to understand functional programming and this deep, mathematical concept called the monad. It turns out that monads are simple to explain: if you’re mathematically inclined and know your category theory, they’re a monoid in the category of endofunctors. If you’re a programmer, they’re a pattern for the augmentation of function composition.


Since I’m a programmer, the latter explanation appeals to me. (I’m also a mathematician, and I know what all the words mean in the theoretical explanation, but I don’t understand them well enough to use them effectively.) For your basic Python, Ruby, or Javascript developer (nevermind, shudder, PHP), you have to start with explain what function composition is, how you already do it without having a word or even a concept for it, why you want to do it more, how you work around problems involving collections and sequences, and then you have to explain what you mean by “augmentation,” and what it buys you, and how it fits into your existing mental framework of designing and writing software. I’ve been working my way through a series of exercises that have helped me understand what “augmented function composition” is and does for me.


But it took work. It took a lot of work. Even with twenty years of software engineering experience, it took hours of hammering away at the problem, day in and day out, for me to even start to see the benefits of using this pattern. I’ve now got a fairly solid understanding; I’m hoping to apply it to some personal projects in the hopes of reducing my error rate and speeding up delivery.


Lots of people have tried to “simply” explain monads to me. But to understand them, I had to put in the effort. I had to put in the hours. I had to do the work. Sometimes, no matter how well you understand “it”, no matter how simply you explain “it”, your audience simply doesn’t have the knowledge, the mental framework, necessary to understand what you’re talking about.


And some people, no matter how hard they try, will never have that framework. They don’t have a mind capable of grasping it. We would never ask Sarah Palin to try and understand multi-dimensional vector maths; she hasn’t got the mind or temperance for it. It’s not even that she won’t, it’s that she can’t. By nature or nurture, she hasn’t got the headaround for it, and never will.


It’s not about understanding or simplicity; it’s about your audience’s capability and willingness to comprehend.

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