Category Archives: mind

Start Small. Start Growable.

Languages Should Be Growable

One of the fun things in Computer Science is finding new and mind-blowing stuff that turns out to be 15 years or more old.

I just watched Guy Steele’s 1998 OOPSLA talk, Growing a Language. If you haven’t watched it, go watch the first ten minutes and you’ll be hooked for the rest of the talk. I don’t want to give anything away but there’s a huge bomb that he drops in the first ten minutes that not only kept me riveted for the rest of the talk, but then made me rewind it and watch it again. (Remember how you watched Sixth Sense, and the bomb gets dropped at the end and you had to watch it again? And then the director explained his use of the color red in the movie, and you had to go watch it a THIRD time to see that the bomb was constructed right there in front of your face the whole time? Yeah, Guy’s talk is like that.)

In his talk, Guy discusses whether a language should be large or small; a large language lets you say many things easily but requires that you and your listener both learn many words before you can say anything. A small language lets you both start talking immediately, but requires that you spend a lot of time creating new words before you can say anything interesting.

I won’t tell you whether Guy thinks you should create a large language or a small one–in fact, Guy won’t tell you either. But he does make it clear that a good small language must be growable, and a good large language must be both well-groomed and still growable. He even goes so far as to say that most good large languages are the ones that started small and grew over time, with good cultivation.

Bless his misguided heart, he then says that Java is a good language. I have to point out that this establishes his crazy-person street cred right there, but in a way, he’s right: Java DID start small enough to be easily understood. It grew slowly, and with careful curation. This was in 1998, and Guy then goes on to point out that Java is fundamentally broken and ungrowable unless they add some growth mechanisms to the language, such as generics and operator overloading. Most Java programmers today think of these as “having always been there” in the language, and they’re probably part of the reason Java is not only still around, but a dominant language in the industry today.

Applications Should Start Small… and be Growable

So I’m working on an new app right now, and I want to do some good OO design up front to ensure that the app looks and works well. But I’m stuck trying to figure out where to start. Funnily enough, I opened Sandi Metz’ book, POODR (Practical Object-Oriented Design In Ruby) for some guidance, and I found this astonishing guidance right there at the top of chapter two:

“What are your classes? How many should you have? Every decision seems both permanent and fraught with peril. Fear not. At this stage your first obligation is to take a deep breath and insist that it be simple. Your goal is to model your application, using classes, such that it does what it is supposed to do right now and is also easy to change later.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Libraries Should Be Growable… or Well-Grown

I’m a fan of RSpec. If you’ll permit me stretching Guy’s language metaphor, it’s a big language for testing, with many words. I can test very complicated ideas without extending the language, and someone who has learned RSpec’s language can read my complicated ideas without learning new words.

MiniTest is a very tiny testing language. It has only a few words. As a programmer not used to constructing new words in my testing language, I initially found MiniTest to be insufferably repetitious. Each test used ten words or so, and nine of them were identical in all of my tests. When presented with this frustration, Ryan Davis shrugged with annoyance and snapped “so write an abstraction method!” It wasn’t until I watched Ryan write tests at MountainWest RubyConf this year that I realized that he does this all the time. This means that a) he was not kidding b) he was not being dismissive and c) that adding words to minitest’s language is in fact exactly how MiniTest expects to be used.

Interestingly, while I think RSpec’s large language is elegant and well-curated, many programmers feel that RSpec has grown in the wrong direction, or has at least become buried by overgrowth. Ryan felt that even Test::Unit had too much cruft in it, let alone RSpec, so rather than prune the language back, he started fresh, started small, and most importantly, started growable.

When Ryan spoke at MWRC, he created a new testing word that I felt did not make much sense. Even watching him define it I thought “Okay, I understand the abstraction, but that word is horrible. It doesn’t communicate what the word does at all.” That’s the drawback to small languages: naming things is hard, and small languages require you to name things from the start. Had I been pairing with him we’d have had a splendid argument about the name of the abstraction method he wrote. But that sort of fits into Guy’s logic as well: growth should be carefully curated. As you grow, you’ll create new words, and those words should be easy to learn and understand or you can’t communicate well.

Growth Should Be Curated

I’m gritting my teeth as I type this, but I have to own up to it: The growth of Java has been well curated. C# has also been well-groomed, even if I think the language designers have carefully and consistently solved all the wrong problems with the language.

I think PHP is probably the poster child for bad growth*. That’s in addition to its internal syntax inconsistencies; I’m just talking about the language’s internal methods. For a quick example, see how many different clumps of consistency you can find just in the string functions. For a longer example, read @eevee‘s rant, PHP: A Fractal of Bad Design. (TL;DR? Fine, just click on the rant but don’t read it–just scroll down to see HOW LONG it is.) PHP’s problem is twofold: they added things inconsistently, and they were unwilling to prune things back out of the core once they had been added. PHP has grown much faster than Java and C#, because the maintainers were willing to make mistakes rather than deliberate for years in committee, but like Java and C#, PHP hasn’t gone back and fixed mistakes once made.

In my opinion, Ruby sort of gets a B+ on growth curation. A lot of words are unnecessary synonyms (count and size and length, for example) while other words are occasionally synonyms that suddenly change meaning when you’re not expecting them to (Array#count and ActiveRecord::Base#count, for example). Some things in the language are pretty bizarre edge cases (The Kernel#test method, for example) and in the new Ruby 2 release one major feature (Refinements) was brought in under strident protest. But by and large the methods across the entire language are consistent with each other, and when they vary it is usually to be consistent with some external protocol that they are modeling. Ruby 2 was willing to break backward compatibility in order to fix mistakes and grow sufficiently. I also cut Ruby some slack because it’s growing extremely fast in comparison to other languages, and having the breaking changes in Ruby 1.9 for 3 years before committing to Ruby 2 let the community keep pace.

So Grow, But Grow Carefully

And that’s sort of my whole point here: Size and growth are key tenets at every level of abstraction: for a single application, a broadly applicable test suite, or an entire language, two rules I’m drilling into my head right now are

  1. Start Small. I can’t say “Always Start Small” because sometimes the problem you need to solve is big. But it is fair to say “Always Start As Small As Possible”.

  2. Start Growable. This one IS gospel for me. However big I choose to start, I think growability is essential for success.

  3. (Bonus Rule) Curate your growth, but don’t be so afraid of growing wrong that you become afraid to grow. Be willing to grow and then weed.

And if all else fails, start over with a new small thing and start growing again.

* Note: Every time I kick PHP’s tires I get hate mail from offended PHP programmers who assume I’ve never used the language. The fact that PHP programmers are the only group worse than rubyists when it comes to language fanboyism is a topic for another day, but for now, let me just say $$dispatcher->$$method. If you’ve never written your own framework in PHP, that little snippet of code means I am better at PHP than you. I have pushed out, much like an agonizing stool the day after an all-night taco binge, a little over a million lines of PHP code. It is the foul tongue of Mordor, but I have earned the right to dislike it purely on its lack of merit. If you like it, that’s fine. It’s your choice. I’m not saying PHP doesn’t have its good points or that I can’t write clean code in it. I’m just saying it’s not worth it to me.

Stop SOPA: An Open Letter

Copy of a letter I have sent to my representative. Similar letters have also been sent to both of my senators.

Dear Representative Chaffetz,

When you campaigned in 2008, you promised to go to Congress and fight for me. As your constituent, I am writing you to ask you to PLEASE do everything in your power to fight SOPA and PIPA.

I create content for the web, and I go out of my way to ensure that everything I create is legitimate, original and worthwhile. I have had that content pirated, and I feel firsthand the frustration of seeing others use and profit from my stolen efforts and being unable to find effective recourse against these people.

I want good anti-piracy legislation. We NEED good anti-piracy legislation. But SOPA and PIPA are NOT good legislation. While I appreciate the effort put into helping web-based businesspeople like myself gain speedy recourse against pirates–and this should be a part of good anti-piracy legislation–I am unsure if the laws will help a small business like myself, and I am genuinely terrified of the breadth and ease with which this recourse may be misapplied to legitimate content created under fair use.

I know this is a tricky issue. Balancing speedy recourse against infringement versus appropriate defense against censorship of free speech will require some clear thinking, tough negotiating, and hard fighting. But that’s what we elected you for.

Please give us good anti-piracy legislation. And please, do it by first stopping SOPA and PIPA.

Thank you,

David Brady
President, Shiny Systems LLC, and active Utah District 3 voter

Software and Chicken Entrails

I had a collection of epiphanies today about Informational Software.

“Informational Software” is a term I use to describe software that helps you understand and make decisions about information. It is not a product and does not make your business money, but it can be used to help you understand your business and therefore, in theory, help you make money. For example, analytics software does not make you money, but you can use it to understand your traffic and hopefully to then minimize your costs and maximize your revenues. (Note that if you are selling an analytics package, this definition is still true, because in that case the software is a product, not an information tool*.)

Informational Software comes in two types: software that interprets trends and data and makes decisions for the user, and software that collects and reveals data so the user can make their own decisions. Expert systems are an example of the former, analytics packages are an example of the latter.

Let’s call this mess of data the chicken entrails. We want to read them and predict the future, right? Sure we do. That’s what chicken entrails are for.

Okay, enough definition. Here are the epiphanies:

First: If your users are untrained and the data is simple, your system can advise the user and/or make decisions for them. If they cannot read the entrails, or the entrails are too simple to bother the entrail readers, do not let/make them read the entrails.

Second: (Pay attention, this is the important bit) If your users are highly trained and the data is very complex, do not attempt to interpret the entrails for them. Just show them the entrails. Highly trained users who have asked you for information software do not want you to do their job, they want a tool to help them do their job better.

Third: My instinct is always write software that interprets entrails, regardless of the complexity and regardless of user knowledge. Learn to stop and figure out what it really needed.

Fourth: Interpreting complex data is really, really hard. On a small, knock-it-out project, it is almost certainly doomed to fail. Now reread the 2nd epiphany: On small, knock-em-out projects, it is completely unnecessary.

Right now I’m working on software that reveals entrails to some truly arcane masters of entrail reading. They have become masters because the information system currently available to them is literally designed to protect the data from their eyes. I have found two pieces of data, correlated them, and put them into a report, and they think I’m a super genius. Not because my software is smart, but because it is smart enough to be dumb.

I really like epiphanies where I suddenly realize that it is not necessary to be doomed to failure.

* And if you’re smart enough to reason “but what if you’re using your analytics tool to analyze the sales of your analytics tool”, I congratulate you on your cleverness. Can you also see the flaw in this reasoning?

Two Questions

Recently I was talking with a friend about coaching and specifically the act of helping younger developers improve themselves. I had a sort of microepiphany when I realized that I’ve been improving myself for over two decades with the same pair of questions, originally unconsciously and only recently in my active consciousness. The next time you do something you want to get better at, ask yourself these two questions:

What about this makes me feel good? This is a VERY specific question, and it is NOT “what do I like about this?”. It’s often hard to answer. You are not allowed to say “I don’t know”, and you are not allowed to settle for answering the much easier question “what about this do I like?”—although that can be a great guide into discovering what it is that makes you feel good. If you wrote an elegant passage of code, or did something clever, or shipped a really nasty hack but saved the company (thus buying them time to refactor your nasty hack) by shipping on time, that’s what you like. But go beyond this. What about that makes you feel good? Did it make you feel smart? Did it make you feel artistic? Did it make you feel like a hero? Did it make you feel like somehow, against all the odds, you might just be starting to “get it” as a programmer?

Take a moment and really just let yourself feel good about what you did. If you can find that and tap into it, you have just found a well inside yourself that you will return to again and again in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just found the reason you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting better at this.

If you can’t answer this question, don’t sweat it. But don’t be surprised if your life ends up going a different direction. Find something else that makes you feel good, and do that instead.

What about this could I do better? Most days, you’ll think of something right off. There was some duplication, or a lack of symmetry in the code, or your variable names were kind of awkward.

Other days it’s a bit harder. “Writing this bit felt a bit grindy, like I was pushing out lots of boilerplate. I don’t see how to fix it, but does it really have to hurt this much?”

The best days are the days when you try and try and just can’t answer it. Important: this doesn’t mean you did something perfect. Far from it, and far better: it means you’ve actually managed to see your blind spot. “This”, your brain is telling you, “this empty space, here… is where more knowledge will fit.” Those are the days that herald “getting it” on a whole new level.

So, them’s my questions for you. What made you feel good? What could do better?

Felt any good or done any better recently?

Donkeypunching Ruby Koans

Do you want instant enlightenment? Sure, we all do.

And now you can have it!

Tonight I presented Ruby Koans at URUG. It started out simple enough, but then we got on a weird quirk about trying to make the Koan tests pass without actually satisfying the test requirements. We monkeypatched Fixnum, then started playing with patching Object#to_s… basically we were looking for TMAETTCPW: The Most AEvil Thing That Could Possibly Work. I spelled Evil AEvil because it’s extra evilly.

Mike Moore had the bright idea to just break off all the assert methods in Test::Unit; after that it just became a challenge to discover how to get the rest of the koans to run at all.

With sincere apologies to Matz, Jim and Joe, here is the result:

Tourbus 2 is Out!

I just released Tourbus 2.0! You can get it by cloning the tourbus repo in that link, or by simply installing the gem from rubyforge.

What’s TourBus?

TourBus is a ruby framework for stress-testing a website. You define “Tourist” classes that “tour” their way through your site, and then tell tourbus to send a load of them at your site.

What’s New

Better Syntax, and tested support for most rubies. TourBus 2.0 has been tested and found worky on:

  • JRuby 1.6.0 <– strongly recommended, as it has better threading
  • MRI 1.8.7p334
  • MRI 1.9.2p180
  • REE 1.8.7-2011.03

Upgrading from Tourbus 0.9

  • Your tour classes will change; they are now called tourists and they go on tours, instead of being called tours who run tests (which really never made sense anyway)
  • Open your tour class, and change it to inherit from Tourist instead of Tour.
  • Change before_tests and after_tests to before_tours and after_tours.
  • Rename all your test_ methods to be tour_ methods. E.g. “def test_simple” => “def tour_simple”
  • That’s it! Tourbus should now run normally.

Quick and Easy Setup

gem install tourbus

Okay, let’s say you have a website running at localhost:3000 and you want to test that home.html includes the text “hi there” even when being pounded by hundreds of visitors at once. Let’s install and set up everything all at once! cd into your project folder, and do the following:

mkdir tours
echo 'class Simple tours/simple.rb

That’s it, you now have a tourist ready to wander over to your site and request the home page. Let’s run him and see that everything’s okay:


You should see a clean run followed by a text report showing what happened. If that worked, let’s make your tourist go through the website 10 times in a row. But let’s ALSO make 100 different tourists to the same 10 laps with him, all at once:

tourbus -n 10 -c 100

Happy server stressing! Check out the README for more info.

Bonus: Isolating Tourbus

Here’s how I like to install tourbus. I cd into my development folder, and then do:
rvm install jruby-1.6.0
rvm use jruby-1.6.0
rvm gemset create tourbus
rvm gemset use tourbus
git clone git://
cd tourbus
gem install bundler
bundle install
gem build tourbus.gemspec
gem install tourbus-2.0.1.gem # (update version if it changes)

Next I cd into my project and do

echo 'rvm use jruby-1.6.0@tourbus' > .rvmrc

This lets me run tourbus under jruby and its own gemset, so even if my website is running rails on MRI, I can still get the lovely JVM native threads when tourbussing my site.

James Edward Gray: Associative Arrays and Ruby Hashes

Yesterday I put out a little screencast showing some ways of Creating Ruby Hashes. James Edward Gray II pinged me on Twitter and basically said “Great screencast! Ooh, but you forgot this! Ooh, and this! And this!” and so of course there was nothing to do for it but invite him to do a pairing screencast with me.

This video is a bit of a weird hybrid. You get 7 minutes of podcall, then 18 minutes of screencast, then another 12 minutes of podcall. James shows off some of the “hot new awesomeness” of Ruby 1.9, and then points out that this awesomeness has been around for a couple of years and nobody’s using it, in spite of it having been in the current Pickaxe for nearly as long. Along the way we talk about regular expressions, testing dogma, and the importance of never squashing creativity in the open source community. All in all, an incredibly fun time for me. James threatened to come back and do another one with me on regular expressions, and I’m mentioning it here in writing so that everybody knows I plan on taking him up on that offer.

No podcast, because half of it is us typing into a shared screen session. But here’s the video. You may need to watch it on Vimeo or download it to see the font clearly.

Associative Arrays with James Edward Gray II from David Brady on Vimeo.