Flow of Control

Image of Dr. Lyndell St. Ville- ICT Consultant
By Dr. Lyndell St. Ville- ICT Consultant

THE recent high-profile leak of some 30 government documents have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Apart from the stunning exposé first highlighted on a popular TV show, this matter is also being discussed on social media, and raises serious questions about the process, justification, control of such government actions.

Unsurprisingly, a defensive response was invoked from the government, while its critics cited the large number of awards, the beneficiaries of these awards, the scruples of making such awards, the timing of the awards, and the total cost involved. Still, there is a more fundamental issue that is left unaddressed: the purpose of such awards and the shadowy manner in which they are generated.

In the lingo of computing science, a “jump” instruction switches the flow of control from one part of a programme to another, and allows programmes to respond to events of interest. Without this fundamental instruction, programming tasks would be very tedious and inflexible. Programming a robot to take ten steps instead of nine would require a new programme, not a simple configuration change.

From our perspective, it is reasonable to expect a simple requirement such as “continue forward until reaching an obstruction” to work without specifying a discreet number of steps. Using “jump” instructions to switch to another part of the code allows very powerful programmes to be built.

In 1968, a respected Dutchman and “Humble Programmer” Edsger Dijkstra (and noted pioneer in computing science research) published a controversial paper, “Goto Considered Harmful”, in which he argues that use of the “goto” statement (an unconditional jump) is “too much an invitation to make a mess” of the programme being produced. While not completely deriding its use, he called into question the application of a device that reduces the transparency of the work being undertaken.

Recognizing that we live in a hurricane zone, we can expect our share of disasters, to which an urgent response demands a departure from the normal flow of control, representing an unconditional jump, to a direct award for an emergency repair.

Since fears exist about the abuse of such a provision in our laws, or as Dijkstra noted, the invitation to make a mess of these awards, perhaps that might be a valid item to be changed. It is especially curious that emergency conditions are mostly public events, but an urgent response should not be equally public to offer some comfort and confidence in the actions being taken. The two ought to go together!

To share your views, contact the author at: www.datashore.net or via The VOICE.

(About the Author: Dr.Lyndell St. Ville is an ICT Consultant offering expertise in data management, systems design and analysis.)

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