GNU Terry Pratchett

(post-hoc prescript: I admit to being in two minds about sharing this post. Name-dropping can be the ultimate in reflected vanity: I have worth because I knew this worthy person. I title it about them, but we both know it’s about me. I hope this post, containing much as it does about me and my experiences, is actually about what I learned from an Old Fart in a Hat – among others.)

GNU Terry Pratchett

Nearly three years ago, The Compleat Ankh-Morpork was approaching completion, and the publishers were excited about the potential to turn it into an interactive discovery of the Circle Sea’s cleanest cityest city. At the time that I joined Agant, Dave “OMG it’s Dave Addey off the internets” Addey had already been discussing the project with them, and much was ready to go.

Indeed, Dave and I were ready to go. We took a train down to the Discworld Emporium and met Sir Terry Pratchett, his partner in crime Rob Wilkins, their able Aiders and Abettors from the Emporium and some of the most happening among those who Make Things Happen at the publishers.

In the Dolphin Hotel at Wincanton, we had a pub lunch and tried to define exactly what it meant to put Ankh-Morpork into an iPad. I’d already made a start, and here I learned Lesson Two: the creative mind knows it can be done. You don’t need to convince them it can be done. It’s already been done, it’s up there in their mind’s eye. You just need to convince them it can be done well, and in this reality.

Wait, lesson two? Yes, for here was Lesson One: when meeting your heroes, only one of the two of you is likely to try and make a big deal out of it. The other wants their ploughman’s lunch and their G&T and to get back to work. Keeping focussed on the task at hand – a difficult feat as I was dealing with an internal monologue that would not stop going “squeeeeeee” – paid off, and everyone left safe in the knowledge that there was lots to do but that we would do it because it needed to be done and we needed to be the ones to do it and we needed it to be done well.

OK, most of the rest of this story is history. Dave, the developers at Agant, and a dedicated collection of others worked very hard for a number of months and eventually Discworld: the Ankh-Morpork Map for iPad oozed its way out of the alledged waters of the Ankh (there’s no need to disinfect it, the bacteria refuse to touch the stuff) and into the App Store. It remains the project of which I am most proud, both of the contributions I made and of all that was put in by everyone involved.

All good stories, though, come to an end, and Sir Pterry’s did last week. Today I went back over to the Emporium to talk a bit about the past and a lot about the future. It’s from today’s discussions that Lesson Three originates.

Some day, you will be invited by a polite though insistent anthropomorphic personification to take a walk together. Before he arrives, do the things that need to be done. Make sure they’re the things that must be done by you, and that you will be satisfied and pleased to see completed. Otherwise the two of you won’t have a whole lot to talk about.

The Tankard Brigade

I have a guideline that seems to apply to many pursuits and hobbies: any activity can be fun until there’s too high a density of men with beards and tankards.

Of course, they aren’t all men (though many are) and don’t all have beards and tankards (though many do). But they can turn any enjoyable pastime into a maddeningly frustrating pursuit of ever-receding goals, like Zeno’s arrow approaching but never reaching its target.

Some background. For any activity there will be different levels of engagement; different extents to which once can take it seriously. For most people (apart from, in this simplified model, two people) there will be a collection of people who are less invested than they are, and a collection of people who take the pursuit more seriously.

Often, this doesn’t cause any disharmony. Some natural outgroup bias might make people believe that those who take it more seriously take themselves too seriously, and put too much effort into what should be an enjoyable way to spend one’s time. Similarly, those who take it less seriously are perhaps not really engaged with the activity, and can be a bit too frivolous. Of course the distance between my level of engagement and perception of the outgroup’s investment is decidedly non-linear: pro golfers and non-golfers do not cause as much difficulty for year-round and fair-weather amateurs as these two groups cause for each other.

This is all largely harmless snobbery and joshing until the men with beards and tankards come along. A man with a beard and a tankard (even if only figuratively a man with a figurative beard and tankard) is someone whose level of engagement with a pursuit must be the greatest of everyone in the room or online forum.

A single man with his solitary beard and tankard in a group can be harmless, endearing or slightly irritating. He will have bought the most expensive equipment available, and will gladly tell everyone who’ll listen (and many who would rahter not). He’ll explain why he got it, why it’s better, and why you simply can’t appreciate the subtleties and nuances of what you’re participating in (and apparently enjoying very well, thankyou very much) without the basic investment in a good…whatever that thing is they bought. Moreover, there’s only one way to engage in the activity, and that’s the way in which he does it. Anyone who has a different way, particularly one that invovles spending less time or money, is looked on in smiling condescenscion as one who simply doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – appreciate the craft in all its majestic glory. It might involve some eye-rolling, tutting, and perhaps a strategic choice of seat at the society Christmas dinner, but you can usually cope with one man with his beard and tankard.

Two or more, on the other hand, start to get out of hand (this one or the other one), because each wants to be at the apotheosis of his craft, neither can afford to be outdone by the other. The effect is of course an inescapable ratchet of dedication and investment, much like the ever-accelerating and ultimately ruinous cycle of gift-giving in potlatch societies. When one comes in with some new piece of kit, the other must have it or the one better than it. When one adopts some new and laborious way of interacting with the pursuit at hand, the other will immediately adopt or surpass it. Their interactions with each other are best described as ‘banter’, that particularly masculine (and indeed beard-ridden and betankarded) species of chatter that seems on the surface to be friendly ribaldry but that covers a seething and complex web of mistrust and hatred.

As I said earlier, I think that what really counts for enjoyment of a pursuit is the density of men with beards and tankards. Some activities seem able to hold at once both people with large individual investments, and a welcoming attitude toward newcomers and casual participants. Many runners and cyclists, regardless of how much they spent on their kit, will be happy with and friendly toward anyone who turns up to the same event to run or ride alongside them. The next person may be on their super-list carbon fibre frame with $5000 wheels and bespoje saddly uniquely contoured to fit their cheeks, when you turn up on the $250 bike you got in the January sales. But they’re a cyclist, and you’re a cyclist, so hey, let’s get some cycling going.

Some activities are clearly at the transition, where variations in the density of the tankard field can locally push it past the critical limit. Most motorcyclists are happy to acknowledge and welcome other bikers (though obviously not scooter riders), with a few notable exceptions. Harley riders tend to only notice other Harley riders. The extreme end of the amateur track circuit only pays attention to how much you’ve bored out your cylinders (and anyone who’ll listen) and the amount of time you spend riding a dynamometer. And that certain class of BMW rider who watched The Long Way Down can’t believe that you don’t have mud pans, GPS, and aluminium flight cases attached to your bike when you go to the corner shop for a pint of semi-skimmed. But still, most bikers accept most other bikers, and talk to them about most biking.

And then there are the activities that are forever lost to the men with beards and tankards, for which the ratchet has turned so far that even if the barrier to entry is theoretically low, the barrier to sociable entry – to engaging with the community as an equal – can be insurmountable.

Consider astronomy. It used to be that if you had some cheap army surplus binoculars, you could go along to your local astronomy society and discuss what you’d seen of the moon, the planets and some of the brighter objects in the Messier catalogue. Then, with the introduction of the charge-coupled detector, the tankard brigade arrived in force. Now people will swap photos constructed from multiple hundreds of exposures through different narrow-band filters, taken with their large reflecting telescopes with computer-controlled star drives and the latest in CCDs (all probably permanently housed in purpose-built observatories in their gardens). No multi-thousand-dollar telescope (perhaps even no garden)? Nothing to discuss.

In some circles, folk music can have a more practice-driven ratchet system. The British folk revival of the 1970s brought with it literal men with actual beards and genuine tankards who defined what folk singing was (in apparent contradiction to the idea that it should be up to the folk to decide). Now there exist folk clubs where unless you have that certain nasal folkier-than-thou timbre in your voice and practiced wobbly delivery, and unless you can remember all of the words to all twelve verses without recourse to the book, you probably shouldn’t take part.

All of this leads me to my questions. As a programmer, which of the practices I participate in are pragmatic, which necessary, and which informed by the ratchet of the men with beards and tankards? How much of what we do is determined by what others do, and must be seen to be done before we can claim we’re doing it right?

And which things? Is it the runaway complexity of type systems that’s the ratchet, or the insistence of programming without the safety net at all in a dynamic language? Or both?

My naive guess is that tankardism manifests where unnecessarily highfalutin words are deployed, like ‘paradigm’ for ‘style’ or ‘methodology’ for ‘method’. And yes, that sentence was deliberately unnecessarily highfalutin.

Learn Mansplaining The Hard Way

zed shaw:

It didn’t matter that most of these detractors admitted to me that they don’t code C anymore, that they don’t teach it, and that they just memorized the standard so they could “help” people.

[…]

I cannot help old programmers. They are all doomed. Destined to have all the knowledge they accumulated through standards memorization evaporate at the next turn of the worm. They have no interest in questioning the way things are and potentially improving things, or helping teach their craft to others unless that education involves a metric ton of ass kissing to make them feel good. Old programmers are just screwed.

The laser physics of software

I’ve worked in a few different places where there have been high-powered lasers, the sort that would make short work of slicing through Sean Connery in a Bond movie. With high-powered lasers comes mandatory laser safety training. At least, it does in the UK.

The first time you receive laser safety training it comes as a bit of a surprise. Then, the second (and later) times, you get to watch the same surprise in everybody else who’s watching it for the first time.

The surprise comes because you kind of expect to hear about cooked retinas, skin burns and all sorts of unpleasant nastiness. Which of course you do, but those aren’t the likely forms of laser accident. The surprising bit is the list of “popular” (not popular) ways to get injured by a laser:

  1. You electrocute yourself on the power supply.
  2. You ignite the liquid oxygen that’s built up around the liquid nitrogen cooling system, probably using the same power supply.
  3. You drop the laser (or indeed the power supply) on your foot.

So to programming. While we’re all donning our protective goggles of shiny new type systems and lack of mutable state, the “popular” (not popular) problems (we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know what we should be doing, we’re bad at treating people well) are not being addressed.

Full-stack

That moment where you’re looking back through your notes to see that you’ve:

  • modelled charge carrier behaviour in semiconductors
  • built a processor from discrete logic components
  • patched kernels
  • patched operating system tools
  • written filesystems
  • written device drivers
  • contributed to a foundation library
  • fixed compiler bugs
  • performance-tuned databases
  • built native apps
  • built web apps
  • tested the above
  • taught other developers
  • mentored other developers
  • sold the above skills

and a thought occurs: someone who knows both PHP and JavaScript is called a full-stack developer.

Someone who tells you that programmers are rational actors who are above marketing is lying. Everything in the field is marketing, including the idea of rationality. Performing such marketing becomes easier when the recipients don’t think it exists, or don’t think they’re the sort of people who would fall for it.

I’m reminded of the audience reaction to this serial entrepreneur describing his recently-acquired startup’s technology (skip to 10:24 if the timestamped URL doesn’t do that automatically for you). He presents these four points:

  • DOS: 1 Analogy Unit
  • Mac + HI Toolbox: 5 Analogy Units
  • DOS + Windows: 7 Analogy Units
  • Mach OS + OpenStep: 20 Analogy Units

Listen to the applause for the unjustified number 20.

One decade in

The first working week of August 2014 comes ten years after the first working week of August 2004. You knew that. The first working week of August 2004 was the first week since completing my degree that I worked for a living: the start of a sequence of (paid) events that led me to here.

Obviously it’s not the start of the sequence at all, but I’ve already covered that story. It’s not even when I first learned Objective-C: that was about a year earlier. However, stories are easier to tell if they begin once upon a time, rather than in the middle of a collection of events, the connections between which being subtle and hard to examine.

It would be nice to give a recommendation to people who are in the position now that I was ten years ago, but it’s unlikely that the same things that worked back in 2004 are still applicable. Should you want to try, then my suggestion is this: bet your whole career on some apparently minuscule niche, and hope against hope that the only vendor supporting it creates a whole new industry within about four years so that your seemingly poor decision cashes out.

As an aside, you can draw clear lines around the things I was using back then that I’m still using now. Some of the lines are fuzzy: I’m still using “UNIX”, though that doesn’t mean the same thing (nor did it mean then anything that would’ve been recognisable to a user from 1994, 1984 or 1974).

It would perhaps be less nice to give a list of lessons that I claim to have learned over those ten years. Those would, of course, be lessons that I derive now from my recollection of that time, and would mostly serve to add to the corpus of folklore that permeates our field.

Which brings me on to the one thing I unequivocally do know after ten years in [IT, computers, whatever you want to call it]: that I still don’t know a lot. I definitely know more about programming computers than I did then, but that’s only an infinitesimal part of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

Planet of the Apps

Scene: in front of a green screen somewhere in the present day. Our protagonist, freshly burned out from a session of writing dynamically-typed web backend code in vim, looks up from the monitor. In the distance, some way along the beach, they see an odd shape poking out of the sand. Their curiosity piqued, they trudge out under the burning sun toward the edifice.

Running a risk of collapsing through dehydration, finally they are close enough to the object to be able to see through the heat haze that it is the top of a large statue that’s largely covered by centuries of detritus. The only discernible features are a hand holding aloft a chorded keyer, and the stern-browed head of Douglas Englebart.

Oh my God, I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was…we finally really did it. YOU MANIACS! OH DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!

Wristwatches in the Future

[Int: Moscone West convention center third floor ballroom. A presentation is taking place.]

So that was an update on our existing products, which I’m proud to say have never been stronger. Now I’d like to talk to you about our watch. We think you’re gonna love it.

When thinking about recent attempts to make wristwatches by some of our competitors, you’re probably thinking whatever happened to the retina display?

Eliminate Blake

I’ll tell you what happened: you’re looking at it in the wrong size. The pixel density is fine, but the screen’s smaller than it looks on this projector.

Avon Calling!

No, smaller than that.

Ulysse Nardiaaaaaaaaahn!!!!

Hmm, eye strain doesn’t sound like a future thing does it? Shouldn’t we come up with something a bit more ergonomic?

…actually, no, it’s a reasonable compromise. Centuries of user experience research have shown that future people find it most natural to talk into their scaphoid bones. That’s even true when they’re plastic people who don’t actually have scaphoid bones!

Stand by for wrist action!

[Sidenote: No, I will not be apologising for the alt text on that image.]

The technology was originally introduced as part of the struggle to end the Cold War, when one key application was in the unification of Germany.

Rembrandt's Knight Watch.

After seeing how people tried to use these devices, we came up with the breakthrough form factor: five pounds of computer-machined aluminum and an incomprehensible user interface.

This watch is Bullock's.

So that’s the watch. We can’t wait to see what you do with it!

Where am I going with this?

I recently asked how people would describe this Secure Mac Programming blog were they trying to tell someone else they should read it. Of all the answers, the one that most succinctly sums up the trouble with the old name is from Alan:

@secboffin Not Just Secure, Not Just Mac, Not Just Programming.

I’m probably in the midst of some existential crisis, having spent a couple of years thinking and writing about philosophy, ethics, and the social responsibility of my work and its context. It’s clear that I’m dealing with some conflict, and it doesn’t look like reconciliation is an option.

Often I write about ideas that are still knocking around my head, such that I never come to any conclusion. I’ve used multiple choice conclusions, conclusions that appear to be from a different argument, and have concluded that my entire argument may or may not be useful.

This is just something I need to work out: what do I think I do, what do other people think I do, what parts of that do I like and dislike, are there other things I would like, can I replace the disliked parts with the liked parts, and so on. I write it here as you may have related ideas, or you may be thinking about the same things yourself and benefit from knowing that other people are, too.

What I know includes a list of things that currently interest me:

With all that in mind, I’m happy to introduce the beginning of a slow rebranding of this blog. It is now called the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers, and can be found at http://www.sicpers.info/ in addition to its previous home at http://blog.securemacprogramming.com.

I do not intend to remove the old domain or break existing feed subscriptions. Over time (basically, as I work out how to do it) I’ll migrate links, feed entries and so on to reference the new domain, and the age-old updated mission of the blog.