Monthly Archives: March 2007


Tricky translation

Hmmm, language translation is tricker than I understood. Here’s a translation from an article I just saw:
“Simple DS Series Vol.14 The Jidousha Kyoushuujo DS [translates to] Simple DS Series Vol.13: The Vehicle Learning DS.”

I never knew a Japanese 14 was an English 13.


Buggy software

Should I love or hate buggy software?

I mean, the hate part is somewhat obvious, in that it interrupts work and takes one out of flow and dammit I paid $apple and I should get orange performance, etc.

But the love part comes from the following facts:

  • in cases where I’m paid by the hour, I make the same amount of money for struggling for a hour with OPB as for doing, ya know, some real work.
  • I learn things from struggling with bugs. Not only “this crap doesn’t work in this situation” (which is commercially valuable knowledge), but also things about the technologies involved, theoretically things that transfer to other contexts. Wasn’t it Heidegger that had a whole theory about how tools are invisible until they fail to work?
  • (third entry because a list of two things is weird.)

“We Feel Fine”

This is pretty amazing, on a few different levels: We Feel Fine.


A choice

We can choose to see the past as a set of templates against which we can train our souls to perceive the peace and joy of every configuration of the universe.


Teaching programming

Someone (I don’t really like to mention a lot of specific names on my blog) asked me today what suggestions I might have to someone who’s about to start teaching a university course in programming in MIS. I had some fun hypothesizing about it; here’s what I wrote:

[I have to preface all my remarks with: I’ve never taught anything bigger than parts of a three-day course in the architecture of a specific application, and even then I didn’t try any of the blue-sky ideas I’m about to mention. But, if I did try to teach something like a college course, I would try them.]

My first thought is that the most important thing to emphasize is that programming is about structuring thinking and activity, and not really about the structure of computer programs, so I think a project-based approach seems like a good idea.

I’m going to just go full-hypothetical here and give a transcript of the first monologue I’d give :-). Hopefully people would interrupt me…

“Contrary to what you may have been told, programming is not really that much about languages and syntax and stringing together a series of canned solutions. Well, good programming is not about that. Mediocre programming is about that, and you can get by in the commercial sphere being a mediocre programmer, so if anyone is truly satisfied with that, we can have an independent study course where I assign you a textbook and you do problem sets and tests.

However, what I’d rather we all do is learn good programming, and by the method that I think makes most sense, which is to actually build something together and enjoy building it. Good programming is about structuring thinking and activity, both on your own and with others. It’s really just a particular discipline of problem-solving and communication, both of which I assume you all know a good deal about.

The project we’ll be doing is the software for a POS system. You might think “that’s boring”, which I hope to convince you doesn’t have to be true, and you might think “that’s quite practical”, which is true but not all that relevant.

What is relevant is that it’s something big enough that it will take the whole semester. Today is the last ‘lecture’ of the class. I mean, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to take notes if that’s your thing, but what I’ll be doing is not lecturing; I’ll be participating in the discussions that come naturally from the project, and bringing in whatever I can from my years of experience when the need arises. You’ll want to take notes on what you and your classmates say more than on what I say.

If you’re thinking about grades, and it’s OK to admit that you are, I think everyone will be graded by classmates. I won’t let you be too hard or too easy on one another, but other than that, you’ll be deciding grades. Inherent in the structure of a complete software system is some sort of assurance that what you’ve built is high-quality. So, for example, there’ll be people making test systems that will test modules that other people are making. It will be clear to both of those teams how well the other team did. You’ll be giving grades at the end of the second, fourth, eighth, and sixteenth weeks.

Speaking of teams, let’s start talking about the pieces of the system and the workflow for building them. I think we can accommodate everybody’s interests and talents somewhere in here.”…

[Some pieces of work/ideas I might bring up if they didn’t come up: user interface/ease of use, network protocols, language and coding style decisions, source control (use SourceForge and get the added effect that ‘anyone in the world might see your code’), error handling, exception handling, auditing, security, existing code and libraries, storage and redundancy, issue tracking, performance, testing, data formats (i.e. floating point is not necessarily good for financial data), customization/branding, data mining, what happens if the whole thing ‘crashes’, legacy system integration, self-check systems, …]


Remembering a name

Funny the things one remembers. I’ll probably never forget the name of a mythical COM interface from a project I worked on: IWendyPointerToGuts. This was a name for, let’s say, an anti-pattern that we wanted to avoid in the project. I’ve long since left that project and have no need for the name any more, but it still sticks.


Spam brain

Ha, I was amused to find that a sci-fi story had the same idea I’ve had, about spam filters eventually being a source of artificial consciousness:

“AOL is the origin of intelligence?” She laughed, and
he couldn’t tell if she thought he was funny or stupid.

“Spam-filters, actually…”

— Cory Doctorow, “I, Row-Boat”

Great story, by the way. And free for download, thanks to Doctorow’s enlightened attitude about sharing-as-marketing.


The switch flips

It seems like the direction of technological progress has been to reduce the number of moving parts in use, but now we may be starting a trend in the other direction. MEMS are getting hot, for example: MEMS switch tops 26 GHz, or DLP Pioneer….

[Ha, I accidentally made a funny when I said they’re ‘getting hot’. See, cuz the thing about MEMS systems is that they don’t get hot, like larger-scale mechanical systems. Ha.]

It’s pretty amazing that we’re seeing switches that thunk back and forth 26 billion times in a second, or projectors where every single pixel has its own little mirror wiggling independently hundreds of times per frame. What would Archimedes think of these?

And (of course) I see interesting roles for software coming up in concert with such systems. Whenever you can affect something in the real world at a rate of MHz or GHz, you can drive it with software and do some things you wouldn’t have believed…