Selectively caring

When Choose Boring Technology was published earlier this year, it hit home for me. If you’re spending money trying to ship, say, a music notation app, there’s no point in rewriting the operating system scheduler.

Let’s say every company gets about three innovation tokens. You can spend these however you want, but the supply is fixed for a long while. You might get a few more after you achieve a certain level of stability and maturity, but the general tendency is to overestimate the contents of your wallet. Clearly this model is approximate, but I think it helps.

If you choose to write your website in NodeJS, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use MongoDB, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use service discovery tech that’s existed for a year or less, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to write your own database, oh god, you’re in trouble.

Today the personal lesson finally percolated out of this team decision. Why is it I can’t make any progress on software? I care about too many things. This isn’t just about choosing technology, which is a small part of what technologists do (though it does imply passing all of the other caring, about ethics and finding potential customers and selecting customers and retaining customers and making money and hiring people and firing people and evaluating performance and making the lunch and designing a product and creating an experience and plumbing the toilets and other things to other people).

It’s about those things, the technical things, and more. If I care about all of those things then there’ll always be something not quite right about what I’m doing, which will be morale-destroying. Or it will make me work on fixing the thing that isn’t quite right, rather than whatever I need to make progress on. Or both. Often both. And, of course, given the size of our industry and the number of bloviators in it, for any subject upon which it’s possible to have an opinion there will be multiple opinions written, so plenty of possibilities to research how to care about whatever it is I’ve decided to care about.

Choosing what to care about is a skill, and a valuable one to have. Choosing not to care about something doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring its impact, though that is one way to deal with it. You can hire someone else (directly or under contract) to care about it, make an arbitrary choice and go with that, or get someone else to make an arbitrary choice that you then follow.

If the division of labour was the driver of efficiency in the industrial age, then the division of caring is that driver in the information age. Now to choose what to care about.

Criticising the Four Freedoms

The core principle of Free Software is that people who use software
retain certain freedoms, unlike the situation with proprietary
software in which all of the freedom associated with the software
remains with the vendor. Those are the Four Freedoms:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Without other resources, these freedoms are pretty academic. Let’s
take access to a computer as a given for the purpose of this argument:
you’re one of “the program’s users”, so presumably you have the
material needed to use the program.

But does the program need all the resources it uses?

I can study and modify the program. Access to the source code is
indeed a prerequisite; comprehensible source code is also a
prerequisite. So are the study materials I need to comprehend the
source code, and the time it’ll take me to do that study.

So that’s me on the receiving end of free software, what about the
producing end? Nothing in the world of free software compels me to
choose the simplest language, to design my software for
comprehensibility, nor to make available the tools and information
needed to understand the source code that enables the other
freedoms. But unless I do that, the four freedoms are only
hypothetical.

But where to go?

I agree with John Gruber here: it’s not like Apple’s stuff has become worse than a competitor’s, it’s just that it’s not as good as I remember or expect. It could be, as Daniel Jalkut suggests, rose-tinted glasses[*].

I don’t think there is a “better” competitor, except in limited senses: Solaris/IllumOS and OpenBSD both have good-quality code but are not great to use out of the box: Solaris in particular I associate with abysmal package management and flaky support from supposedly cross-platform applications that are actually only ever built and tested on GNU Debian has well-adhered free software guidelines and much better compatibility but not all GNU code is as high-quality as some alternatives. The OpenBSD copyright policy and the FSF definition of freedom are incompatible so OpenBSD doesn’t contain much GNU software GNU doesn’t contain much OpenBSD software: you get a base system that’s either one or the other and have to do work if you want bits of both. Other GNU/Linux distributions can be easier to set up and have better (i.e. any) support for non-free software and wider collections of device drivers.

So there are plenty of alternatives, many of which are good in some ways and bad in others, and all I know is that I don’t want things to be like this, without being able to say I want one of those instead. I don’t even think there will be one of those, at least not in the sense of a competitor to Apple on laptop operating systems. Why not? Because I agree with the following statement from wesolows:

from the perspective of someone who appreciates downstack problems and the value created by solving them, is that the de facto standard technology stack is ossifying upward. As one looks at each progressively lower layer, the industry’s collective willingness to contemplate, much less sponsor, work at that layer diminishes.

There’s still research in operating systems, sure, but is there development? Where are the NeXTs and Bes of today? I don’t believe you could get to a million users and have a Silicon Valley “exit” with low-level technology improvements, and so I don’t think the startup world is working in that area. So we probably won’t get anything good from there. I don’t see competition in operating systems being fruitful. If it were, Sun wouldn’t have been sold.

In fact I don’t even think that Apple’s systems are bad, they’ve just lost the “it just works” sheen. It’s just that when you combine that with the lack of credible alternative, you realise the problem is probably in expecting some corporation to put loads of resources into something that’s not going to have a great value, and merely needs to be “good enough” to avoid having any strategic penalty.

To me, that means treating the low-level parts of the technology stack as a public good. If we accept that the stack is ossifying upwards, and that EM64T, Unix, C, IP, HTTP, SQL and other basic components are going to be around essentially forever[**] then we need to treat them and their implementations as public goods and take common ownership of them. They might not be the best possible, but they are the best available. We (we the people who make systems on top of them, in addition to we the people who use systems made on top of them) need them to work collectively, so we should maintain them collectively.

[*]I particularly like his use of the phrase “Apple-like” in this context, because that term is often used to mean “my platonic ideal of Apple’s behaviour” rather than “what Apple actually does” and reminds me to be wary of my own recollections. I remember Lightning connectors being welcomed in a tweet that derided the old iPod 30-pin connector as “un-Apple-like”, despite the evidence that Apple invented, introduced the 30-pin connector and then supported it for over a decade.

[**] speaking of Sun, I use the definition of computer-forever I learned from a Sun engineer: five years or longer.

In which I resolve

When I was a student I got deeply into GNU and Linux. This has been covered elsewhere on this blog, along with the story that as Apple made the best UNIX, and the lab had NeXT computers, I went down the path of Objective-C and OS X.

I now think that this was because, as an impressionable twenty-something-year-old, I thought that the most important part of the technology was, well, the technology. But I realise now that I want to have taken the other path, and now need to beat across toward it.

The other path I’m talking about is the one where I notice that it’s not programs like those in Debian that are so great, but the licences under which they are distributed. Much of the software in a GNU/Linux distribution is not so good. That makes it much like using software on every other platform. The difference is that I have the right-and hopefully, after a decade of practice, the ability-to do something about it in the case of free software.

I’m certain that GNU is not the best of all systems, though, because the focus has been on the right to make changes, not the capability of making changes. A quick review of the components I can remember in the installation on my MacBook shows that I’d need to understand at least nine different programming languages in order to be able to dive in and address bugs or missing features in the system, holistically speaking. If they’ve given me permission to change how my computer works, they haven’t made it easy.

But as someone who can change software and wants software to be less broken for me and for others, that permission is important. Next year I’ll be looking for more opportunities to work with free software and to make things less broken.

Fuck. This. Shit.

Enough with the subtle allusions of the previous posts. What’s going on here is not right.

It’s not right that I get to pass as a member of the group of people who can work in technology, while others have to justify their very presence in the field.

It’s not right that “looking like me” is a pass to being considered for the best-paid jobs, while “not looking like me” is not.

[that last one took me a long time to understand. To me, it seems like I worked hard to get where I am, but I needed to understand that I was given the opportunity to work at the things I worked at. That all I needed to do was to work at it, not to work at it and convince everyone else that I was eligible to work at it.]

It’s not right that while I get a free pass into various fields of endeavour, others are told that they either slept their way into the field or are groupies or are unfuckable.

Previously, I avoided writing about this stuff because I thought I might get writing about this stuff wrong. Fuck. This. Shit. I’ve got social capital to burn; it’s much easier for me to get another job around this sector than plenty of people who are as good or better than me at doing the work. I might be worried about treading the line between being supportive and getting into trouble, but that’s not as bad as the line women, trans people, non-white people, non-straight people, disabled people have to tread between asking to be considered equally and keeping their jobs have to tread. I have one job: doing my job. I do not have two jobs: doing my job, and convincing people that someone like me should be allowed to do my job. If the cost of equality is giving up my free ride, then I give up my free ride.

The pipeline is not the problem, it leads to a vat of acid. No-one wants to lean in to a vat of acid. (Thanks to Cate Huston for that metaphor, it made a lot of sense to me.)

Our industry is exclusive, and needs to be inclusive. What should you do about this? I don’t know, I’m far from knowledgable. If your position is “I agree with the straight white guy that the world is broken, I should ask the straight white guy how to fix it” then perhaps you are the problem, just as I have been and am the problem.

What should I do about this? First step for me is to listen. To not tell people who are describing their experiences what my experiences are. To avoid thinking about my reply to people, and to think about what they’ve said. To stop looking for holes in arguments and to listen for opportunities to grow. Not just to grow me, but to grow others.

Open Source and the Lehrer-von Braun defence

Tom Lehrer’s song about Wernher von Braun is of a man who should not be described as hypocritical:

Say rather that he’s apolitical. “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

The idea that programming as a field has no clear ethical direction is not news. As Martin Fowler says here, some programmers seem to believe that they are mere code monkeys. We build things, it’s up to other people to choose how they get used, right?

It’s in open source software that this line of thinking is clearest. Of course anyone can use commercial software, but it becomes awkward to have blood money on your company’s records. Those defence companies and minerals miners just lead people to ask questions, and it’d be better if they didn’t. You could just choose not to sell to those people, but that reduces the impact of your product.

A solution presents itself: don’t take their money! Rather, decouple the sending up of the thing and the choice of where it comes down, by making it available to people who now don’t have any (obvious or traceable, anyway) connection to you or your employer. That’s not your department! Instead of selling it, stick it up on a website (preferably someone else’s, like GitHub) and give a blanket licence to everyone to use the software for any purpose. You just built a sweet library for interfacing with gyroscopic stabilisers, is it really your fault that someone built a cruise missile that uses the library?

“But wait,” you say, “this doesn’t sound like the clear-cut victory you make it out to be. In avoiding the social difficulties attendant in selling my software to so-called evildoers, I’ve also removed the possibility to sell it to gooddoers. Doesn’t that mean no money?” No, as Andrew Binstock notes, you can still sell the software.

Anyway, perhaps it’d be useful to restructure the economics of the software industry such that open source was seen as a value-driver, so you can both have your open source cake and eat the cake derived from valuable monetary income. You might do that by organising things such that an open source portfolio were seen as a necessary input to getting hired, for example. So while plenty of people still don’t get paid for open source software, they still indirectly benefit from it monetarily.

We can, evidently, easily spin contributions to open source such that they are to our own benefit. What about everybody else? When a government uses Linux computers to spy on the entire world, or an armed force powers its weapons with free software, is that pro bono publico?

The usual response would be the Lehrer-von Braun defence detailed above. “We just built it in good faith, it’s up to others to choose how they use it.” An attempt to withdraw from ethical evaluation is itself an ethical stance: it’s saying that decisions over whether the things you make are good or evil are above (or beneath) your pay-grade. That we, as developers, are OK with the idea that we get large paychecks to live in comfortable countries and solve mental problems, and that the impact of those solutions is for somebody else to deal with. That despite being at the epicentre of one of the world’s biggest social and economic changes, we don’t care what happens to society or to economy as a result of our doings.

Attempts have been made to produce “socially aware” software, but these have so far not been unqualified successes. The JSON licence includes the following clause:

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.

Interestingly, in one analysis I discovered, the first complaint about this clause is that it interferes with the Free Software goal of copyleft. How ethical do we think an industry is that values self-serving details over the impact of its work on society?

The other problem raised in relation to the JSON licence is that it doesn’t explain what good or evil are, nor who is allowed to decide what good or evil are. Broad agreement is unlikely, so this is like the career advisor who tells you to “follow your dreams” without separating out the ones where you’re a successful human rights lawyer and the ones where you’re being chased by a giant spider with a tentacle face through an ever-changing landscape of horror.

I should probably stop reading H. P. Lovecraft at bedtime.

Preparing for Computing’s Big One-Oh-Oh

However you slice the pie, we’re between two and three decades away from the centenary celebration for applied computing (which is of course significantly after theoretical or hypothetical advances made by the likes of Lovelace, Turing and others). You might count the anniversary of Colossus in 2043, the ENIAC in 2046, or maybe something earlier (and arguably not actually applied) like the Z3 or ABC (both 2041). Whichever one you pick, it’s not far off.

That means that the time to start organising the handover from the first century’s programmers to the second is now, or perhaps a little earlier. You can see the period from the 1940s to around 1980 as a time of discovery, when people invented new ways of building and applying computers because they could, and because there were no old ways yet. The next three and a half decades—a period longer than my life—has been a period of rediscovery, in which a small number of practices have become entrenched and people occasionally find existing, but forgotten, tools and techniques to add to their arsenal, and incrementally advance the entrenched ones.

My suggestion is that the next few decades be a period of uncovery, in which we purposefully seek out those things that have been tried, and tell the stories of how they are:

  • successful because they work;
  • successful because they are well-marketed;
  • successful because they were already deployed before the problems were understood;
  • abandoned because they don’t work;
  • abandoned because they are hard;
  • abandoned because they are misunderstood;
  • abandoned because something else failed while we were trying them.

I imagine a multi-volume book✽, one that is to the art of computer programming as The Art Of Computer Programming is to the mechanics of executing algorithms on a machine. Such a book✽ would be mostly a guide, partly a history, with some, all or more of the following properties:

  • not tied to any platform, technology or other fleeting artefact, though with examples where appropriate (perhaps in a platform invented for the purpose, as MIX, Smalltalk, BBC BASIC and Oberon all were)
  • informed both by academic inquiry and practical experience
  • more accessible than the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge
  • as accepting of multiple dissenting views as Ward’s Wiki
  • at least as honest about our failures as The Mythical Man-Month
  • at least as proud of our successes as The Clean Coder
  • more popular than The Celestial Homecare Omnibus

As TAOCP is a survey of algorithms, so this book✽ would be a survey of techniques, practices and modes of thought. As this century’s programmer can go to TAOCP to compare algorithms and data structures for solving small-scale problems then use selected algorithms and data structures in their own work, so next century’s applier of computing could go to this book✽ to compare techniques and ways of reasoning about problems in computing then use selected techniques and reasons in their own work. Few people would read such a thing from cover to cover. But many would have it to hand, and would be able to get on with the work of invention without having to rewrite all of Doug Engelbart’s work before they could get to the new stuff.

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

✽: don’t get hung up on the idea that a book is a collection of quires of some pigmented flat organic matter bound into a codex, though.

ClassBrowser’s public face

I made a couple of things:

I should’ve done both of these things at the beginning of the project. I believe that the fact I opened the source really early, when it barely did one thing and then only on my machine™, was a good thing. It let people find out about the project, have a look, and even send changes. But not giving anywhere to discuss ClassBrowser was a mistake. It meant I answered questions in private messages that would’ve been better archived, and it probably turned some people away who couldn’t immediately see what the point was.

Hopefully it’s not too late to fix that.

Laggards don’t buy apps: devil’s advocate edition

Silky-voiced star of podcasts and all-round nice developer person Brent Simmons just published a pair of articles on dropping support for older OS releases. His argument is reasonable, and is based on a number of axioms including this one:

  • People who don’t upgrade their OS are also the kind of people who don’t buy apps.

Sounds sensible. But here’s another take that also sounds sensible, in my opinion.

  • People who don’t upgrade their OS are also the kind of people who don’t like having to computer instead of getting their stuff done.

Let’s explore a world in which that axiom is true. I’m not saying it is true, nor that Brent’s is false: nor am I saying that his is true and that mine is false. I’m saying that there’s an open question, and we can investigate multiple options (or maybe even try to find some data).

Developers are at the extreme end of a range of behaviours, which can be measured in a single dimension that’s glibly called “extent to which individual is willing to mess about with a computer and consider the time spent valuable”. The “only upgraders buy apps” axiom can be seen as an extension of the idea that all changes to a computer fit onto the high end of that dimension: if you’re willing to buy an app, then you’re willing to computer. If you’re willing to computer, then you’re willing to upgrade. Therefore anyone who wants to sell an app is by definition selling to upgraders, so you can reduce costs by targeting the latest upgrade.

Before exploring the other option, allow me to wander off into an anecdote. For a few years between about 2004 and 2011 I was active in my (then) local Mac User Group, which included chairing it for a year. There were plenty of people there who were nearer the middle of the “willingness to mess with a computer” spectrum, who considered messing with upgrades and configuration a waste of time and often a way to introduce unwanted risk of data loss, but nonetheless were keen to learn about new ways to use their computers more efficiently. To stop computering, and start working.

Many of these people were, it is true, on older computers. The most extreme example was a member who to this day uses a Powerbook G3 Pismo and a Newton MessagePad 2100. He could do everything he needed with those two computers. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to do it with less computer, from wanting to optimise his workflow, to find the latest tips and tricks available and decide whether they got him where he was going more efficiently.

As I said, that example was extreme. There were plenty of other people who only bought new computers every five years or more, but were still on the latest versions of apps like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, or iWork where they could be, and whenever new ones got released the meeting topic would be to dig into the new version (some brave soul would have it on day one) to see whether they could do things better, or with less effort.

These people were paying big money for big software. Not because it was the newest, or because they had to be on “latest and [as we like to claim] greatest”, but because it was better suited to their needs. It gave them a better experience. So, bearing in mind that this is a straw-man for exploration purposes, let me introduce the hypothesis that defends the straw-man axiom presented above:

  • A delightful user experience means not making people mess about with computer stuff just to use their computers.
  • There are plenty of people out there who would rather get something that lets them work more effectively than waste time on upgrades.
  • To those people, spending money on software that gets them where they are going is a better investment than any amount of time and anxiety spent on messing with settings including operating system upgrades.
  • These people represent the middle of the spectrum: not the extreme low end where you never change anything once you’ve bought the computer; nor the extreme high end where fiddling with settings and applying upgrades is considered entertainment.
  • Therefore, the low price of “latest and greatest” software reflects at least in part the externalisation of the (time-based) costs and risks associated with upgrading to mid-range tinkerers.
  • Because of this, while the incremental number of users associated with supporting earlier OS versions may not be great, the incremental value per user may be much higher than gaining users with low-price apps on the current operating systems.

As I say, interesting food for thought, but not necessarily any more (or less) true than the view presented in Brent’s posts. Please have your pinch of salt ready, and don’t bet your business on the thoughts of this idle blogger.