Yet another Slashdot comment.

Where someone asks my thoughts about maintaining comments or code documentation:

Comments, like many things in software development, are really a matter of personal style–though they do serve the purpose of making it clear what your code is supposed to do, so the guy who maintains it later can have an understanding of what is supposed to be going on.

So I tend to lean towards a block comment per non-trivial (10 lines or more) function or method–though sometimes the block comment may be at most a sentence. (I don’t think the name of the method or function is sufficient commentary enough simply because cultural differences may make a non-native English speaker unable to translate your personal naming conventions.) I also tend to lean towards describing how complex sections of code work if they appear “non-trivial” to me–meaning if I’m doing more than just calling a handful of other methods in sequence or looping through a bunch of stuff which was clearly noted elsewhere.

I also tend to write code like I write English: a single whitespace used to separate two blocks of code, and moving functionality that is associated into their own blocks (where shifting functionality does not impair the app) is preferable. I also tend to block chunks of methods in a class which are related with each other; the Apple C/C++/Objective C compiler provides the #pragma mark directive to help provide a one line comment to help identify the functionality of those groups of methods.

If I’m doing something really non-trivial–for example, implementing a non-trivial algorithm out of a book (such as a triangulation algorithm for converting a polygon into a triangle) I will start the block comment with a proper bibliographic citation to the book, the edition of the book, the chapter, page number, and (if the book provides) algorithm number of the algorithm I’ve implemented. (I won’t copy the book; the reference should be sufficient.) If the algorithm is available on a web page I’ll cite the web page. And at times when I’ve developed my own algorithm, I will often write it up in a blog post detailing the algorithm and refer to that in my code. (When done as a contractor I’ll look for their internal wiki or, if necessary, check in a PDF to the source kit.)

Back when I started doing this a long time ago, technical writers were sometimes used to help document APIs and the project requirements of the project. The reason for having a separate technical writer was because by having a person embedded in a project who is not intimately familiar with the project, they know the right questions to ask to help document the project to an outsider, being an outsider themselves. Developers cannot do this. Developers, being too close to the code they work on, will often run the code down the “happy path” not thinking of the edge cases to run, and they won’t describe things they think is obvious (like “of course you must call API endpoint 416 before calling API endpoint 397; the output of 416 must be transformed via the function blazsplat before calling 397, and how do you get the input to blazsplat?). A really good technical writer could also help to distill the “gestalt” of the thing, helping to find the “why” which then makes code or project specifications incredibly clear. (You call endpoint 416 because it’s the thing that generates the authentication tokens.)

Back when I was required to train for CISSP certification (I never took the test), one section discussed the three states of knowledge–later used by Donald Rumsfeld in a rather famous quote he was lambasted for. There are things we know we know. For example, I know how to code in C. There are things we know we don’t know. For example, I know I don’t know how to code in SNOBOL. But then there are also things we don’t know we don’t know: this is why, for example, why often speakers never get any takers when he asks for questions: because his audience doesn’t know what questions they should ask. They don’t know what they don’t know.

I think there is a fourth valid state here–and we see the computer industry absolutely riddled with them: the things we don’t know we know. These are the things we’ve learned, but then we think somehow “they’re obvious” or “everyone knows them.” They’re the things we don’t question; the things we don’t think need to be taught, because we don’t know they need to be taught. And the problem is, developers–having invented the code they need to describe–don’t know that they need to describe it to people who haven’t spent weeks or months or years studying the problem and working towards a solution.

I know I suffer from it, I know others who suffer from it. It’s why I think we need people checking our work and helping us to document our interfaces. And it’s why any answer I give for how to comment code will be insufficient: because of the knowledge problem that I don’t know what I should be telling you if you want to understand my code.

And it’s why I think we often don’t comment enough: because we don’t know what we know, so we don’t know what we need to tell other people.

Took, what? 20 years for someone else to say this?

58% of high-performance employees say they need more quiet work spaces.

Our open industrial spaces are frustrating our best people and likely impacting our end products.

I mean, this would be obvious to anyone who had read The Mythical Man-Month and considered the consequences of some of that book’s observations. But apparently we’re too smart to make such observations…

A comment left on Slashdot.

The problem is that our industry, unlike every other single industry except acting and modeling (and note neither are known for “intelligence”) worship at the altar of youth. I don’t know the number of people I’ve encountered who tell me that by being older, my experience is worthless since all the stuff I’ve learned has become obsolete.

This, despite the fact that the dominant operating systems used in most systems is based on an operating system that is nearly 50 years old, the “new” features being added to many “modern” languages are really concepts from languages that are between 50 and 60 years old or older, and most of the concepts we bandy about as cutting edge were developed from 20 to 50 years ago.

It also doesn’t help that the youth whose accomplishments we worship usually get concepts wrong. I don’t know the number of times I’ve seen someone claim code was refactored along some new-fangled “improvement” over an “outdated” design pattern who wrote objects that bare no resemblance to the pattern they claim to be following. (In the case above, the classes they used included “modules” and “models”, neither which are part of the VIPER backronym.) And when I indicate that the “massive view controller” problem often represents a misunderstanding as to what constitutes a model and what constitutes a view, I’m told that I have no idea what I’m talking about–despite having more experience than the critic has been alive, and despite graduating from Caltech–meaning I’m probably not a complete idiot.)

Our industry is rife with arrogance, and often the arrogance of the young and inexperienced. Our industry seems to value “cowboys” despite doing everything it can (with the management technique “flavor of the month”) to stop “cowboys.” Our industry is agist, sexist, one where the blind leads the blind, and seminal works attempting to understand the problem of development go ignored.

How many of you have seen code which seems developed using “design pattern” roulette? Don’t know what you’re doing? Spin the wheel!

Ours is also one of the fewest industries based on scientific research which blatantly ignores the research, unless it is popularized in shallow books which rarely explore anything in depth. We have a constant churn of technologies which are often pointless, introducing new languages using extreme hype which is often unwarranted as those languages seldom expand beyond a basic domain representing a subset of LISP. I can’t think of a single developer I’ve met professionally who belong to the ACM or to IEEE, and when they run into an interesting problem tend to search Github or Stack Overflow, even when it is a basic algorithm problem. (I’ve met programmers with years of experience who couldn’t write code to maintain a linked list.)

So what do we do?

Beats the hell out of me. You cannot teach if your audience revels in its ignorance and doesn’t think all that “old junk” has any value. You cannot teach if your students have no respect for experience and knowledge. You cannot teach if your audience is both unaware of their ignorance and disinterested in learning anything not hyped in “The Churn.”

Sometimes there are a rare few out there who do want to learn; for those it is worth spending your time. It’s been my experience that most software developers who don’t bother to develop their skills and who are not interested in learning from those with experience often burn out after a few years. In today’s current mobile development expansion, there is still more demand than supply of programmers, but like that will change, as it did with the dot-com bubble, and a lot of those who have no interest in honing their skills (either out of arrogance or ignorance) will find themselves in serious trouble.

Ultimately, as an individual I don’t know if there is anything those of us who have been around for a while can do very much of anything, except offer our wisdom and experience to whomever may want to learn. As someone who has been around for a while it is also incumbent on us to continue to learn and hone our skills; just this past few years I picked up another couple of programming languages and have been playing around with a new operating system.

And personally I have little hope. Sure, there is a lot of cutting edge stuff taking place, but as an industry we’re also producing a lot of crap. We’ve created working environments that are hostile (and I see sexism as the canary in the coal-mine of a much deeper cultural problem), and we are creating software which is increasingly hostile to its users, despite decades of research showing us alternatives. We are increasingly ignoring team structures that worked well in the 1980’s and 1990’s: back then we saw support staff (such as QA and QAE and tech writers) who worked alongside software developers; today in the teams I’ve worked for I’m hard pressed to find more than one or two QA alongside teams of a dozen or more developers. I haven’t seen a technical writer embedded in a development team (helping to document API interfaces and internal workings) for at least 20 years. And we are increasingly being seen as line workers in a factory rather than technically creative workers.

I’m not bitter; I just believe we’ve fallen into a bunch of bad habits in our industry which need a good recession and some creative destruction to weed out what is limping along. And I hope that others will eventually realize what we’ve lost and where we’re failing.

But for me; I’ll just keep plugging along; a 50+ year old developer in an industry where 30 is considered “old”, writing software and quietly fixing flaws created by those who can’t be bothered to understand that “modules” are not part of VIPER or that MVC can include database access methods in the “model” and who believe all code is “self-documenting.”

And complaining about the problems when asked.

You’re doing it wrong.

If you violate a basic principle of software development in order to implement your design pattern, you’re doing it wrong.

Take, for example, Model-View-Controller or its variants, from MVVM to VIPER.

None of these patterns for assembling a user interface application require that you violate the basic principles of object-oriented design, which is the construction of your code using reusable objects defined with will-defined public interfaces and privately maintained internal structures. Meaning if you create a view object where the “private” elements of that object are publicly manipulated or publicly instantiated, don’t use your design pattern as an excuse for violating principles of encapsulation.

You’re just a bad programmer who needs to brush up on the basics.

“Code Smells” and other bad ideas.

One of the worst ideas I have ever encountered in the literature is this notion that we should just “know” when we’ve written bad code. This idea of “code smell” certainly has its place with experienced developers, but to use this idea when teaching inexperienced developers is like telling a first year spanish student who asks how to construct proper sentences “just say what sounds right to you.”

Literate Programming and Server APIs

The more I work on mobile applications and the more I work on my own projects, the more I wish there was a language (based on the principles of Literate Programming) which would help automatically generate both the client code, the server code and the documentation for API endpoints.

Yes, I know existing techniques allow this sort of thing to be documented, but literate programming concentrates more on producing documentation that generates code than it concentrates on code with comments.

In today’s era of “self-documenting code” (and the push towards having code somehow “self-documenting” and away from commenting code), I have no hope that we will ever get decent documentation for client-server interfaces.

It’s just one more step down the rabbit hole away from an era where technical writers were embedded with project teams to help them communicate within and with other teams.

My itty bitty little vice for holding itty bitty little parts.

I have a mill now, but I have the problem that I need to hold itty bitty little parts still while I drill holes into the side. (Sort of like this but much smaller–about 1/4″ outer diameter, 2mm inner diameter.)

So I made myself an itty bitty little vice for holding itty bitty little parts.

IMG 3028

Drink coaster for size.

Turning on a metal lathe

So I bought a bunch of brass and aluminum to go along with my metal working lathe, and today I tried to turn a plumb bob.

And here’s what I learned.


(1) Make sure you have all the parts in the box. I took delivery of a 4 jawed chuck, only to find the screws were missing. (I went ahead and simply ordered the replacement screws; the theory being that at some point I’ll lose the existing screws anyway.)

(2) You can achieve some amazing precision on these lathes. Even a cheap lathe can cut objects to a tolerance of perhaps 0.001 inches. However, you get these precisions only with a lot of effort and thinking about how you are going to cut the part. For example, it doesn’t matter if you have tools that are accurate to 0.0001 inches, if the metal you’re cutting deflects 0.1 inches in the middle.

(3) It is impossible with three jawed chuck (or even a four jawed chuck) to flip the part and turn the length and have it all work out. (See the line in the middle of my picture above? That’s where I tried to flip the part.) Instead, you should minimize the number of times you remove the part from the chuck–and if that means turning the part down the entire length and then cutting the piece as a last step, there you go.

(4) You can, however, face the part after you cut it.

(5) I also learned I suck at cutting the part off. But I bought one of these metal cutting band saws, so it’s moot anyway.

(6) The amount of effort to cut a thread is just absurd. I think I want to put together a tool which can be used to mount the threading tools and turn them using the threading feature of the lathe. The other option is to develop more upper body strength.

(7) Brass is damned pretty.

(8) Also, the auto-feed lever is damned cool. When you think the cut is smooth, reset the cutting tool to the same depth and take another pass–and you find more material gets cut off. Wash, rinse and repeat 3 times and you get a nice finish.

I made a whole bunch of mistakes this morning, but I’m starting to appreciate both the capabilities and limitations of the lathe. I have a bunch of aluminimum stock on order from these guys so I can practice some more, and I also have a milling machine on order which I intend to practice with as well.

Ultimately my goal is to build a clock–but before I start building a clock I need to learn how to use the tools.

Evidence based data

I just saw an ad in my inbox which describes how your mouse is slowing you down, and you need to switch to using a text editor/IDE which can be completely driven by the keyboard.

And it bugged me.

It bugs me the same way all the other Shiny New Things bugs me, the way they bug Uncle Bob.

Further, it bugs me because we have some concrete evidence that this simply is not true. Meaning we have concrete evidence that (a) selecting a menu item is faster than typing a command, (b) finding a menu item is faster than using a keyboard shortcut if you haven’t committed that keyboard shortcut to muscle memory, (c) it takes a nontrivial amount of time and effort to learn the keyboard shortcut, which means that while common commands will be committed to muscle memory quickly (i.e., cut, copy and paste), less common commands are faster found on a properly structured hierarchical menu.

But no-one gives a fuck about evidence-based data anymore.

Because it gets in the way of The Churn.™

And it gets in the way of a thousand developers trying to make a name for themselves by positioning themselves as the inventor of The Next New Shiny Thing.

So do us a favor: if you design user interfaces or are thinking of The Next New Shiny Thing, get Designing With The Mind In Mind and understand how and why our brains work the way they do.

And stop treating your users like “lusers” or like Stockholm syndrom sufferers, so badly tortured by your poor design that they engage in traumatic bonding through an “ongoing cycle of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.”