Open Source Talks at Google, and VIM creator

Google has an interesting talk about “How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People” at Google Video.

On February 13, they’re going to have the creator of VIM, Bram Moolenaar, giving a talk on VIM7.  What’s funny is that Bram, who has been working full-time on VIM for the past few years (living entirely on donations and money votes for VIM features) has now been hired by Google.  Smart move.

Spirited Discussion with Miguel de Icaza on Mono and Microsoft

I got fired up by the evidence coming out of Microsoft from yesterday, and decided to write a post to Miguel de Icaza’s blog.

Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Miguel,

It looks like a new set of “Halloween Documents” have come out, thanks to a case in Iowa, Comes et. al. v. Microsoft (http://iowaconsumercase.org/index.html). I’m wondering if you have any comments on this document in particular, which suggests that Microsoft management knew full well they were “stealing Java” to intentionally marginalize the cross-platform language issue.

A select quote from the document, “Screw Sun, cross-platform will never work. Let’s move on and steal the Java language.”
Here’s the e-mail archives, which was submitted into evidence:

http://www.iowaconsumercase.org/011107/PX_2768.pdf

I’m wondering, given these thoughts from within Microsoft management, and given the recent news of Sun open sourcing the Java language under GPL terms, how is it that you can still push for the Mono project on Linux? Aren’t we always going to be fighting an uphill battle against a monopoly company protecting its biggest cash cow: the Windows platform?

Although my question was more “devil’s advocate” and meant to rile him up, Miguel provided some of the strongest and most cogent arguments for Mono that I’ve seen on record.

I just want to say great work to Miguel and the Mono team, and that if you ever doubted your raison d’etre, all it would take is reading this thread to be convinced! You’ve certainly convinced me!

Update: it’s really this kind of dependency on Windows I’m worried about in .NET. I think it’s just that the culture of the Java runtime is one of platform independence, whereas .NET from Microsoft is one of “platform dominance,” and Mono is some sort of stepping stone between Microsoft’s single-platform vision and those of us who want to write cross-platform apps using .NET.

Software Engineering Management, In a Nutshell

Just saw this on Salon.com, in a letter to the editor about Scott Rosenberg’s new book, “Dreaming in Code”:

There are three options you have when developing software:

1. Quality

2. Lots of features.

3. Low cost

Pick any two.

When you actually go through the combinations, it’s quite funny, and poignant.

Also, check out this excerpt from Rosenberg’s book, called “Words fail us.”  I’m currently working on a software project and we’re doing lots of new and innovative stuff, and I can’t even express how much I connect with this article.  Choosing the right vocabulary may be the single toughest thing in working on software team projects today.

Solving “accidents” and “essences” of programming with better languages

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be. … The computer resembles the magic of legend in this respect, too. If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn’t work. Human beings are not accustomed to being perfect, an few areas of human activity demand it. Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is, I think, the most difficult part of learning to program.

Frederick Brooks, author of the The Mythical Man-Month, disinguished between two problems in software development: the accidental problems and the essential ones. (Read Brooks’ watershed article, “The Silver Bullet“.) The industry likes to argue that we have made huge leaps in terms of the accidental in recent years. Programmer productivity is better with the help of better software revision systems, but more importantly there are RAD tools like GUI designers, powerful IDEs like Eclipse/VS.NET. Do I think we’re headed in the right direction?

In a sense. I think those tools are useful, but only because I think all we can do is shrink the accidental problem as small as possible, and then do our best to tackle the essential. The major win in terms of the accidental and even the essential is high-level programming, and I mean really high level, like Python. Why is this important? Well, Brooks once talked about how PL/I was a great software engineering language because the statements written to the compiler are “pretty close” to the “thought stuff” the programmer is working with in his head. But PL/I is nowhere near there (neither is C++, or even Java or C#). However, Python heads in that direction.

In my head, unless I really am immersed in C code all the time, I don’t think of things like types, memory management, or, God, pointer arithmetic. When we solve problems, we solve it in something computer scientists have used for years: pseudocode. Pseudocode is nothing more than code that expresses an algorithm or approach without worrying about the gory details of the underlying hardware.

Python isn’t quite pseudocode, but it’s closer than anything else I’ve seen. And that’s a huge help to productivity not just from the point of view of the single developer, but, I’d argue, also from the point of view of a team of developers. Code readability is hugely important in team environments. C and Perl can be very unreadable, which makes them ill-suited to team development. Java and C++ are better, but even they suffer from some readability problems (where the actual solutions can be masked by “best practices” and strange ways of exploiting constructs of the language). Python can be hacked too, but it tends not to be, and it tends to have very high readability.

But what about the tools mentioned above (Eclipse/VS.NET)? I often wondered about all the *nix programmers (including many of my Computer Science professors) who still load up X11 and dump into vim or emacs for their programming needs. Wouldn’t they benefit from the latest and greatest in IntelliSense, Refactoring, CallTips, SaneOnlineDocumentation, and any other CamelCase ideas I can think of for a development environment? Most *nix users would say that stuff is unnecessary–and in many senses, they are right. The essential problem remains, no matter how fancy your IDE is.

A lot of *nix developers shrink their accidental problem on a “as-needed” basis, by coding plugins or complex configurations for their highly-extensible text editors. But nowadays, productivity is starting to be a concern even in the OSS world, where things have traditionally stuck with the old “mortar and pestle,” or, should I say, “gcc and gdb”. That’s why we see projects like Mono gaining a lot of popularity.

But Python offers a nice, alternative path, I think. The accidental problem is worth shrinking, and I think it can be done simply by one major refocus:

(1) make the language usable, not the tool. (IMO, already done with Python)

and

(2) create source code analyzing tools that integrate with development environments to make the language-bearer more productive.

You can see enormous success in (2) with the Eclipse IDE project. My main problem: Eclipse’s focus is on a language that isn’t very usable. Java is certainly better than C, but still, it has significant problems that stop it from connecting me (the programmer) with my problem-solving ideas (the thought-stuff of programming).

At my new job, I work with Java eight hours a day, but my code just doesn’t read and work like my Python code, which is much closer to the underlying algorithms and approaches. Java certainly pushed forward OO on the masses of computer programmers, but it did so without learning non-OO but very handy scripting language concepts, like having Lists and Hashes be built-in types, with tons of syntactic sugar, for crying out loud. Most problems break down to List and Hash problems, after all. What’s more, OO on its own isn’t a panacea: I’ve seen many convoluted OO designs that I wish were written procedurally, and which might have been more performant if they had been. The software engineering community thinks that there will be a silver bullet (OOP! AOP! XP! MDE!), but I think just getting programmers closer to the “thought-stuff” will be an effort with better rewards.

The Three-Way Division of Web Development Labor

There is a great article posted by a developer of the open source FreeMarker project on a proposed “third” role for web development teams — something between a backend application developer and a frontend web designer.

Check it out.

I have to say, so much of this article rang true for me. I just finished a web application in which we had four developers but two main rules: backend developer and frontend designer/developer. Due to the type of project it was (and the skillsets of the people involved), backend work was done by 3 of the 4 team members, and frontend work was done by a sole designer.

The issues we had were that:

  • The backend developers could only make guarantees about what kind of object to pass to the view. But often, in order to get access to other “global” objects, the frontend designer would have to hack controller code as well. (Luckily, data services were tiered off out of the controllers, so at least the designer didn’t have to muck about with SQL.)
  • The designer hated the idea of pushing some logic “back” into application code. So, though we as backend developers proposed a layer for configuring things like which menus to display on each page, etc., the frontend designer preferred to engage in the copy-paste-modify antipattern instead, so that it could just “get done.” I can see why: it’s a pain to context switch from JSPs, HTML and CSS to Java POJOs that then will have to be checked using JSTL anyway!

If, early on, we had decided to use FreeMarker instead of JSTL, perhaps the frontend designer could have had access to more powerful macros, and wouldn’t have done the copy/pasting. But I think overall, the two tiers are too few; I agree that you need someone to sit in between and think about how to cleanly integrate backend logic and frontend design.

Mark Zuckerberg: Luckiest Man Alive

Sak and I were recently discussing how upset (read: envious, depressed about our own lives) we were about The Facebook seeking $2 billion.

The main reason we’re depressed is because, though both Sak and I like the Facebook and are users, we can’t help noticing one thing:

It’s not that complicated to build a website like that.

In fact, it’s downright easy. If I weren’t so busy with computer science classes, I probably could have threw something like it together myself.

Now, we know that business opportunities don’t have to be complicated to make money. They just have to be Right, that is in the Right place, with the Right look, taking advantage of the Right fad, etc.

But doesn’t it seem to you that a straightforward PHP/MySQL application just isn’t worth $2 billion? I mean, that’s $2,000 million. That’s $2,000,000,000.

Yet, I can’t say I’m entirely unhappy about it. Mark Zuckerberg, here’s to you, man. You’re my age, and you did exactly what I wish I had done. Built some crappy website, and made out like a bandit with sacks of cash. Kudos. You’re honestly my fucking hero.

The Flight of Computer Science majors

I read this response to an article at eWeek on Bill Gates’ views about Computer Science research, graduates, spending, and company strategies.

I think it’s pretty clear that despite the disagreements I have with Mr. Gates over a subject known as “business ethics” (if such a subject truly exists!), he does seem to be a genuinely patriotic guy who loves technology. I mean, what good is it for more Americans to get into CS, if other countries are diving in and filling whatever knowledge gap may exist? Can’t Bill just hire those workers, and what’s more, for less money per hour?

Well, I think Mr. Gates really wants innovation in computer software to remain “America’s Great Industry.”

I was very intrigued by this response to the article:

Everyone knows that Open Source is taking over the software development industry. And according to the Open Source philosophy; developers should be enslaved, source code should be free. No, no, that’s not politically correct, let me try again. Developers should give their work away because code needs to be free (as in speech) and the needs of the code is more important than the needs of the people who create it. Well, that doesn’t sound quite right either but in any case, it doesn’t really matter to me because my kids won’t be studying computer science.

This is a very interesting post. True, it will be seen as a troll by some, since open source philosophy definitely doesn’t say anything about programmer enslavement. But his point is real and felt in the industry. That is, if you aren’t selling software, how are software developers to make money from it?

I think the response to this was best-articulated by Eric Raymond, when he pointed out that of programmers, only about 1-2% make their cash from off-the-shelf software sales. Instead, most make their money from “in-house” or “custom” software solutions. In other words, the majority of developers aren’t working on the Adobe Photoshop team, they’re working on Acme Inc.’s payroll or issue tracking system.

I kind of love this sort of propaganda, though. Because it is all good news for me.

When I first decided to do CS, I considered the possible effect of outsourcing and other factors on my employment possibilities. I thought, what if there are no jobs when I get out of college? But I stuck with it.

Well, it turns out, everyone had a hunch similar to mine, but they were more wooed by it than I was. So everyone fled CS. And now I’m the only one left. (An exaggeration, but you get what I mean — my computer science classes are nearly empty, whereas they were packed during registration only a few years ago).

It turns out, firms are hiring more than ever before. Why? Because the dotcom bubble is over, and green-eyed imposters are getting flushed out of the industry. But the demand is still there. Software is pervasive. Everyone needs software development done. There simply isn’t anything under the sun that can’t benefit from a little software developer finesse.

You can’t have all this work done in India and China because, it turns out, people want software developers to work with customers (big surprise). They want applications which meet their sensibilities, and they want them changes when the environment changes.

I liked that Mr. Gates said the #1 thing he’s looking for is project management IT types. Funny, it’s the #1 thing I’m looking for, too. Software developers are a dime a dozen. Find me a software developer who doesn’t get nervous when you ask him a tough question, or ask him to write, in plain English, a high-level overview of the system you’re asking him to create, and you’ve got yourself someone who’s valuable.

Changing the tools you use

Mark Shuttleworth has written a nice little blog post about the tools we learn through life and how we discard old tools and learn new ones.

I personally find this to be very true in my life.

When I was in high school, I prided myself (from the point of view of “tools”) as knowing graphic design (Photoshop/Illustrator), web development, and print/page layout. Handy tools to know for (1) making money and (2) working on a high school newspaper. The only real programming languages I knew back then were Actionscript (for Flash), JavaScript, and (eegads) Perl. Then I got to college and armed myself with algorithms, data structures, and systems, and started picking up Java and C on my own. Now I consider myself well-versed in those, and this past summer learned Python and used that on a lot of different projects. Then this semester I got interested in C++ and used that a lot. Nowadays, when I look at problems, I look at them in terms of my tools. Text parsing problem? Wow, Python’s re (regular expressions) module could handle that pretty easily. Big engineering project? Wow, using templates and OO features in C++ may lead to a nice design. Database-driven web application? Well, Java/JSP may fit you nicely. (I know, I know, what am I doing not knowing Ruby on Rails!)

I think Mark’s onto something. Changing toolsets often is definitely useful. Even though I couldn’t write full programs for you in Perl nowadays, what I do know about it (its limitations, capabilities) is definitely good enough to see when it may be the best choice for the job.

As for academic tools — very true. A lot of techniques I learned in e.g. Discrete Math, Linear Algebra were in one ear and out the other. Alas, I think the main point is to learn them once and then be able to Wikipedia them later, when needed 😉

That said, stuff I learned in my algorithms and data structures and operating systems courses have stayed with me. I think some of that stuff is just essential.

Using C++ instead of GObject/C

There’s a great post on why to use C++ instead of GObject/C over at BMP CodeBlog, the blog for developers of beep media player (my preferred MP3 player on Linux). I have to agree with most of what the author says. Using GObject/C is quite cumbersome, I’m almost surprised so many GTK+ developers do it. Especially considering the fact that C++ doesn’t incur overhead unless it has to, nicely expressed here:

The ultimate feature is that all of these are optional. We incur no overhead when we do not use a language feature (with the exception of… exceptions). In fact, cxx_conversion is currently in perfectly valid C++ and uses none of the features or C++ libraries mentioned above yet. The C++ language follows the philosophy of ‘pay for you use’ (better rephrased as ‘don’t pay for what you don’t use’). As it is right now, cxx_conversion is no less (or more) CPU or memory efficient than its C original.

GTKMM keeps getting more and more mature, so now that I’m finally learning C++ properly, I think moving over to GTKMM will be quite nice for a future project that needs a cross-platform UI.