2005-10-07

Levine the Genius Tailor

PROGRAMMING LANGUAGE DESIGN

It is impossible to begin a discussion of psychological principles of programming language design without recalling the story of ``Levine the Genius Tailor.'' It seems that a man had gone to Levine to have a suit made cheaply, but when the suit was finished and he went to try it on, it didn't fit him at all. ``Look,'' he said, ``the jacket is much too big in back.''
``No problem,'' replied Levine, showing him how to hunch over his back to take up the slack in the jacket.
``But then what about the right arm? It's three inches too long.''
``No problem,'' Levine repeated, demonstrating how, by leaning to one side and stretching out his right arm, the sleeve could be made to fit.
``And what about these pants? The left leg is too short.''
``No problem,'' said Levine for the third time, and proceeded to teach him how to pull up his leg at the hip so that, though he limped badly, the suit appeared to fit.
Having no more complaints, the man set off hobbling down the street, feeling slightly duped by Levine. Before he went two blocks, he was stopped by a stranger who said, ``I beg your pardon, but is that a new suit you're wearing?''
The man was a little pleased that someone had noticed his suit, so he took no offense. ``Yes it is,'' he replied. ``Why do you ask?''
``Well, I'm in the market for a new suit myself. Who's your tailor?''
``It's Levine---right down the street.''
``Well, thanks very much,'' said the stranger, hurrying off. ``I do believe I'll go to Levine for my suit. Why, he must be a genious to fit a cripple like you!''
Would it be inappropriate to concot a version of this story called ``Levine the Genius Language Designer''? The first problem in discussing language design is that we do not know the answer to that question. We do not know whether the language designers are geniuses, or we ordinary programmers are cripples. Generally speaking, we only know how bad our present programming language is when we finally overcome the psychological barriers and learn a new one. Our standards, in other words, are shifting ones---a fact that has to be taken into full consideration in programming
language design.


Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg (pages 210-211 in the silver anniversary edition). Via LtU.

3 comments:

Richard said...

butppiI hate this levine story. Perhaps because my last name is levine, but especially because it is vaguely anti-semitic. You understand LEVINE is a classic jewish last name? And he's here a scammer. It's like saying "Here's a story about Tyrell Jones the basketball star/drug dealer" or "Here's one about Tony the longeshoreman/gangster"
Well, I guess this story has it's history but it doesn't mean it should be celebrated/repeated. (It's also not that good, as stories go)

Josef said...

Richard. I'm sorry you were offended by the story. The only point that wanted to make was that of programming language design. The name 'Levine' had no meaning to nor the tailor trade. I didn't know, as I do know, that these things are associated with jews and I agree it makes the story rather anti-semitic. I'll think about removing the post.

Unknown said...

I've found this story extremely relevant in a number of contexts where someone says, "I don't need x--I can do just fine with y"--in fact, I found this page as I am about to post a message on a blog about the Delphi language.

I've heard the story all my life, but possibly the definitive rendition of it was an article (in Esquire, I think) on Mel Brooks's tribute to Harry Ritz, the master of physical stand-up comedy. As I recall, the article had Brooks falling on the floor laughing just remembering and re-enacting Ritz's performance.

(Incidentally: 1) I've always heard it about a tailor named Ginsberg, to be sure no less stereotypically Jewish a name than Levine; and 2) I've heard it with a more PC punch line: As the customer jerks down the street, he is seen by two tailors walking by. "Oh, look at that poor man!," says the first, "He must have been in a terrible accident." "Yes," replies the second, "but look at how well his suit fits him.")

As far as I know, it originated in the Yiddish Theatre / Vaudeville, where everyone--performers, audience, and characters--was Jewish. I've heard a lot of Jewish jokes about tailors, and I gather that, in New York's Lower East Side and other Jewish ghettos, this trade enjoyed a regard similar to that of stereotypical used-car salesmen today--aggressiveness, mendacity, sharp practices, and so on.

So, as a Jew, I regard the joke as a libel, not on Levines specifically or Jews generally, but on tailors. As Richard says, the story has its history, and I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether that history should be reflected in modern-day retellings of this (and similar) stories, or put in a more modern non-ethnic context. I dunno, somehow telling the story with Wilberforce the Saville Roy bespoke tailor, just doesn't do it for me.