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The following is a quote from the computer science classic, "The Mythical Man-Month" (1975).

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. (...)

What does the phrase "removed from" mean in this context?

Although this quote is cited so often, I cannot find a contentable translation in my own language and my understanding of the original sentence is vague.

Here are several interpretations in my mind of the part including the phrase, just for reference.

  • "The programmer, like the poet, works in close proximity to the material(medium) which is a pure thought."
  • "The programmer, like the poet, works mostly using the material(medium) which is a pure thought."

I would appreciate your help.

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    Think "distanced". – Hot Licks Mar 23 '17 at 3:10
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I would like to explain his whole quote.

First, the sentence

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff.

By this, the writer means, that similar to a poet, the job of a programmer is Almost based on pure imagination. The work of a Programmer is not Totally dominated/based on pure imagination but is Almost based on pure Imagination/thought-stuff (that is, it is slightly removed from it). He is not talking about the difference in a poet's work to that of a programmers, but rather about the similarities in the sense that how imaginative they are (while coming just short of purely imaginative/thought-stuff).

His next sentences beautifully follows from his previous assertions.

He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.

The programmer "builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination"

I have always felt the same about programming (being a programmer myself). Programming is vastly different from other forms of Engineering (I consider programming to be an Engineering vocation). Unlike Civil, Electrical or Mechanical Engineering where the creator (Engineer) is severely limited by the physical, material and other 'practical' constraints to truly create whatever they have the ability to imagine (think warp-drives!), the programmers not so much.

Programmers are largely unshackled by the limitations of the physical world. They have both the ability and the means to conjure up extremely complex, grand and creative structures from nothing but figment of imagination as if they are "building a castle in the air, from air, created by exertion of imagination". And as I mentioned like some of the other branches of Engineering "few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework." And if some of those media does permit such freedom of imagination in their implementations (painting/poetry), they hardly ever impact the physical world in the same ways like programming do.

  • Thank you very much for your thorough explanation. That helps me a lot to appreciate the meaning. BTW, do native English users perceive 'thought-stuff' simply as 'imagination' rather than wordy 'material(medium) which is a thought'? – Felipe1979 Mar 23 '17 at 7:09
  • To be honest, I haven't come across the word "thought-stuff" much. Reading the quotes by Fred brooks and from context it seemed like he was simply talking about Imagination. I am not exactly sure what you mean by "wordy 'material(medium) which is a thought' '' and what differences do you think it has from simple "imagination". It would be great if you explained it. I haven't read his books. – Rio1210 Mar 23 '17 at 7:25
  • If "thought-stuff" is translated word for word in my language, it will be "stuff"(meaning material or medium) which happens to be a "thought". And it sounds too wordy and superfluous so I asked the question. I think your comment solved the issue. Thanks a lot. (Too bad my reputation is not high enough to give this answer a public score.) – Felipe1979 Mar 23 '17 at 7:34
  • Oh! Yeah, word for word translated even in English it would mean something along that line. I don't think the author means something like that. Rather I presume he simply meant "the stuff of thought" or "the contents of the thoughts" if you may. Which can be simply referred to as imagination (or the contents of it). – Rio1210 Mar 23 '17 at 7:47
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In this context, "removed from" does not refer to physical distance or proximity. Instead, it refers to the level of conceptual similarity or difference between the work of the programmer and the poet. The programmer creates his work out of his imagination ("pure thought-stuff"), which is not very different from what the poet does. As such:

"only slightly removed from" = "only slightly different from"

Note: I haven't read this book, though it does sound very interesting, and may have missed certain nuances. I get the sense that "thought-stuff" or imagination is considered a physical material in this sci-fi world, leading to the phrasing of your question.

Hope this helped!

  • Thank you. Your interpretation does seem clear and makes sense, but I'm not sure if that is true to the original meaning. To be interpreted as such, the sentence should be restructured as "The programmer works with pure thought-stuff, which is only slightly removed from the poet.". Is this allowable transposition? – Felipe1979 Mar 23 '17 at 6:27
  • @SunghachangHa I think, I get it a bit, I will try to come up with an answer. – Rio1210 Mar 23 '17 at 6:32
  • @karish10 I am sorry but I would have to disagree that the author is talking about the "conceptual difference" between the work of a programmer and the poet. He's talking about their similarities in this passage. In fact in the next lines (not mentioned here), he goes on about the difference between the programmer's work and a poet's starting with a "yet", clearly contrasting this paragraph (and the similarities between a poet and programmer's work). Thank you. grok2.com/progfun.html – Rio1210 Mar 23 '17 at 6:59
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    @SungchangHa You're welcome! I don't think that transposition is grammatically correct. Its structure (due to the use of "which" to refer to "pure thought-stuff") draws a parallel between thought-stuff and the poet, whereas in fact the comparison is of the poet and the programmer - where the original meaning is that they are similar - or "only slightly" different - in the work they do. – karish10 Mar 23 '17 at 8:44
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    @Rio1210 Thanks, and no need to be sorry. I think you've misunderstood my intent, however, because I was pointing out the fact that in this context and usage, "removed from" does not refer to physical proximity, but to conceptual, intangible comparison. Difference and similarity are merely two points on the same spectrum of comparison. If you read my note fully, you'll appreciate that "only slightly different" is close in meaning to "similar". I hope this is clear, and I must say that despite your disagreement, your answer is exactly the same as mine - just more detailed and ardent. – karish10 Mar 23 '17 at 8:46

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