This is fine

The BBC micro:bit is a tool for introducing young people to programming. It’s a little embedded computer with a few inputs and a matrix of LEDs for output, as well as some control lines. In principle it’s quite easy to use, I made a 1d6 simulator:

from microbit import *
from random import randint

class Die:
    ONE = Image("00000:"
                "00000:"
                "00900:"
                "00000:"
                "00000")
    TWO = Image("00000:"
                "09000:"
                "00000:"
                "00090:"
                "00000")
    THREE = Image("00000:"
                  "09000:"
                  "00900:"
                  "00090:"
                  "00000")
    FOUR = Image("00000:"
                 "09090:"
                 "00000:"
                 "09090:"
                 "00000")
    FIVE = Image("00000:"
                 "09090:"
                 "00900:"
                 "09090:"
                 "00000")
    SIX = Image("00000:"
                "09090:"
                "09090:"
                "09090:"
                "00000")
    ALL = [ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX]
    @classmethod
    def throw(self):
        return self.ALL[randint(0,5)]


display.show(Die.ALL, delay=100, wait=False, loop=True)

while True:
    if button_a.is_pressed():
        display.show(Die.throw())
    elif button_b.is_pressed():
        display.show(Die.ALL, delay=100, wait=False, loop=True)

Simple (I mean, simple if you know what the word randint means (hint: it means “random integer” as long as you know what an integer is), that programming languages that aren’t Fortran call the first element of an array element zero, even though it’s obviously ONE as far as a die is concerned, and you’re OK with the word classmethod).

Here it is in action: woo! I AER PROGRAMMER!!!

And here’s the litany of things I did to get there:

  • I opened the “details.txt” file on the micro:bit, which tells me a load of build numbers and flash dates. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. This is hard.
  • I opened the “microbit.html” file on the micro:bit, which redirects me to microbit.co.uk, which tells me that as part of the BBC’s restructuring of its online content, I will be redirected to microbit.org. I decided this was probably OK, and ended up looking at the same site but with a different URL (whatever one of those is).
  • I clicked on the introductory video and was told that I need an Adobe Flash Player, whatever one of those is.
  • I eventually found enough buttons to find a website that is a python editor that lets me write code for my micro:bit, and a tutorial for writing Python for the micro:bit. I know what a python is, but do not know why I would want a snake for my micro:bit.
  • The tutorial tells me to use a thing called a “mu”, which is apparently not the website python editor but is another python editor. I do not know what a mu is, but I must download it.
  • There are three different download buttons, depending on whether I have a Windows, a Mac, or a Linux, whatever they are.
  • If I have a Windows, then I to enable the REPL (whatever that is) I must download a serial driver (whatever that is).
  • The driver site tells me that if I have a Windows 10 (whatever that is), then I should not download the serial driver.
  • If I have a Mac, then the first time (but maybe not other times, that’s not clear) I open the mu I have to right click it.
  • If I have a Linux, then I must chmod u+x the mu and make sure my user (isn’t that me?) is in the dialout (whatever that is) group (whatever that is).
  • Now I can write my python. To put it on the micro:bit, I must “flash” it. I guess that is because I have an Adobe Flash Player from earlier.
  • The micro:bit shows me helpful messages when I get something wrong. It scrolls the message “id=41 SyntaxError: invalid syntax” when I flash my python. I do not know what this means, but I was told that it’s helpful. Therefore I am stupid.

I am not singling out the BBC, the micro:bit makers, the mu creators, Microsoft, or any of the other individuals or organisations involved with creating this easy-to-use educational environment. This is fine. This is how computers work, nay this is how computers work when we are making it easy to work them. This is our industry.

To quote Freddie Mercury: is this the world we created? We made it on our own. Is this the world we devastated, right to the bone? If there’s a God in the sky looking down what can he think of what we’ve done to the world that we created?

By the river

My home stands near to a bridge over the Avon, the same river that lends its name to Stratford-on-Avon. By walking to the end of my street then through the churchyard, I could stand over the river and watch it flow beneath me. But I didn’t. I elected to walk a few kilometres upstream to the grounds of the big house, and stand on that bridge instead. Walking is something I do, apparently. My phone tells me that I walk more than the average man, an achievement I can claim as my own.

It was raining, so I took an umbrella. In theory, I was listening to the patter of the rain on the umbrella, and watching the water flow through the reeds as it washed underneath me, then past my house and the church, past Shakespeare’s birthplace and onto Tewkesbury and the Severn. In fact I did nothing of the sort. The river and its reeds must have been there, and I was pointing in their direction. I was vaguely aware at one point in my half-hour stop of a car on the driveway, approaching me, stopping just short of where I was, then carrying on over the bridge and on to the road. I did not acknowledge the driver, and if that person acknowledged me I failed to notice it.

Of things that I saw, the one that sticks in my mind is the notification light on my phone. It is my beacon to the outside world, letting me know when somebody wants my attention. Twice I remember looking at it, and twice I remember seeing the blue blink that signifies contact via email. Twice I read this link to society at large, to discover that somebody wanted to sell me the world’s most powerful flashlight and that somebody else thought I would be interested in a walk-in bathtub. Isn’t technology a marvel?

Of things that I heard, probably the car had some sort of engine and tyres that rumbled as it made its way past, and presumably the dual carriageway a few hundred metres away was contributing some white noise. The only sound that I remember hearing is my internal monologue. It’s a toxic sound, reminding me as it does that I have no reason to be pleased about anything, but it is my constant companion. I struggle to hold back tears as it reminds me that my home life, my social life, and my work life, are all in flux at the moment, all out of my control, and the common thread running through them all is the person who lost that control. It goes on to tell me that anything else I might try is doomed to failure, too.

I consider using that phone again, not to look at the notification light, but to tell somebody how I’m feeling. Why would you want to do that, asks the voice? These people have their own things to deal with, why burden them with your problems too? Why spoil somebody’s evening by telling them that you’re upset, when they’ve done nothing to upset you? Why are you so selfish? You’re a grown-up, a man who walks more than the average, you’re supposed to look after yourself now. You’re not supposed to be a mess with a state-sponsored Citalopram habit.

I turn the phone around, thinking of taking a picture of the trees silhouetting the clouds, stained Sodium-orange by the streetlights of the nearest town. The screen remains resolutely black. Of course it did, you idiot, it’s much too dark to take a photo with that phone. You’re supposed to be some kind of expert at smartphones, don’t you know how their cameras work? I vaguely consider whether to fetch my SLR camera, but of course that’s been in a box for over a year and it’s doubtful the battery is even charged. Maybe it’s time to sell it on eBay, but of course you won’t get a good price for it and then it’ll get damaged in the post and the buyer will want a refund and you won’t even have kept that money. Why bother?

It took effort to walk the twenty minutes upstream to the other bridge. My voice told me that I would be just as useful to the world if I didn’t take the walk, if I had stayed in bed and waited until it was time to go to work tomorrow. Well, voice, I took everything you told me and made a few hundred words of blog post out of it, so I have done something after all. The joke’s on you.

Answer: none of them

A question programmers frequently ask when they’re considering career growth or personal learning is “which programming language should I learn next?”

Why would learning another programming language help? If you only know one programming language and it is provided by a single vendor, then learning another will decouple your success from theirs, but that might not be such a common situation. Well, a book like Seven Languages in Seven Weeks makes the point that it’s not about learning the language, but about learning the model and thought process enabled by using that language. OK, so why don’t I learn that model or thought process, using the tools that are already available to me, instead of having to add fighting unfamiliar syntax to the problem?

And if what I’m truly trying to do is to learn to think about problems in a different way, a week-long effort at dabbling in a side project isn’t going to change my way of thinking. Those years of learned processes, visualisations and analyses are going to take more than a couple of hours to dislodge. I’ve worked through Seven Languages, and the fact that I spent a couple of hours solving the Eight Queens Problem in Prolog (or in fact telling Prolog what a solution to Eight Queens looks like and letting it solve it) doesn’t mean I now think about any other software problem as if I’m using a logic programming tool, or even as if I have such a tool available. I’ve spent much longer than that studying and using the relational calculus and SQL, but don’t even think about every problem as if it should be a collection of tables in the third normal form.

It may be that it would be useful to learn something that isn’t a programming language, shock horror! It turns out that programming is an activity embedded in a socio-technical system comprising other activities, and you might need to know something about them: software security, testing (I think I can count on my noses the number of programmers I’ve met who haven’t responded to the phrase “equivalence partitioning” with a blank stare, and I wouldn’t use all of my noses), planning, business, marketing, ethics…I even wrote a whole book on the things programmers should know that aren’t programming.

And then there’s the thing that your customers, clients, colleagues, or victims are trying to do with the software. Learning something about that would make it easier to empathise with them, to evaluate your solutions in context, and to propose better ways of working and better ways for your software to enable their work. Rewriting your code in Elixir would…not do that so much.

I fix things for a living

Previously, on SICPers, I wrote that I make mistakes for a living. But making mistakes is no good if nobody’s cleaning up after them, so I also fix things. Whatever gets in my team’s way, it’s my responsibility as their lead to make sure that it’s no longer in their way.

Whether it’s a process we instituted that slows us down, some technical debt that gets in the way of new development, or some infrastructure not behaving itself, it needs to go, and I either need to clear it out or find somebody to do it for us. On my team I’ve been nicknamed “Mister Fix-It” as a result of my policy of getting rid of everybody else’s impediments before doing my own work, and we even have a Fix-It support queue just like our customer support queue. Except it’s not our customers I’m supporting, it’s my colleagues. Tickets in my queue range from “this script doesn’t handle this case and did the wrong thing when I tried to do a build” to “merge these three repos into a monorepo”. It doesn’t matter, it’s in our way, so it needs shifting.

Or does it? Is it, in fact, in the way, or are we solving the wrong problem? Some of the tickets in the Fix-It queue magically transmogrified from “Fix This” to “Measure This”: let’s discover where the problem really is before we solve something else.

No, you can’t ignore politics

I wrote, a couple of years ago, about the fact that you can’t ignore ethics in software engineering. Your software is built for a reason, it’s used for a reason, you need to be aware of those reasons and whether you’re supporting or enabling them.

That goes for politics too. That hacker news declared this week to be politics-free week shows an immaturity and unprofessionalism that makes it a dangerous place to learn about making software from. Making software is the act of some people producing things for other people, it is inherently a political act. Choosing a framework or programming language is political. Attending a meet-up is political. Being paid is oh-so-political. Publishing your side project under an OSI-approved licence? The OSI is a political organisation, the courts that will determine whether the terms of your licence are binding are political, the officials of those courts are selected by a political process.

And, anyway, let’s have a look at the front page of hacker news now, roughly five days into their politics-free week.

What they probably mean is not “political stories are off-topic”, but that political stories that stray from the default politics are off-topic. Anything that doesn’t sound like I agree with it must be subjective, whereas things I agree with are objective. Just as the default narrative in society is often white, male and affluent, so it is those things in the Valley and neolibertarian. Anything else is just politics.