Archive for the ‘Ramblings’ category


August 16, 2010

Back when I was learning programming and software development in college, I began a practice of learning a new programming language every year. I started with Java, then moved to Perl, C#, Visual Basic, Python, Ruby, Groovy, Scala, PHP… etc. I still think it’s a good practice for every developer. It’s even a recommended practice by many other developers on how to stay in your game. You don’t want to be stuck in a situation later on in life where you have to quickly learn a new language (including new concepts) after you’ve been using the same one for decades. The COBOL programmers learned that about a decade or two ago.

So learning a new language is good. It’s not just good to have the ability to use that language in your current project, which you may not be able to do, but also if you switch projects to one that uses that language. However, even beyond direct use of the language is how learning new ideas and ways of doing things will change your code in your language of choice, or at least the language you have no choice in because it’s the one your project uses.

The Matrix

I doubt that The Matrix was programmed in single language. I bet even an AI uses an abstraction to reduce the processing power needed to design something like that.

Of course, this actually brings me to my second topic about projects themselves. The idea that you should learn a new language every year isn’t really new to many people. However, I think that the idea should be extended further to encompass switching projects every few years as well. In a large project this could mean just switching from one portion of the project to another, but with smaller projects it might mean switching completely to a different project (or at least dividing your time between the two).

The reason behind this is actually similar to why you should learn a new language. By being forced into thinking in the new language and solving problems with a different set of tools, it can increase the breadth of your experience and help you perform better on that original project or ones you face in the future. Similarly, being forced to work on a new project will make you think in new ways about new problems that will help you in old projects and even future ones. If you stay with a single project for too long, you’ll star to stagnate and be unable to really explore and incorporate new ideas that your project’s problem domain doesn’t cover. Lack of exposure to new ideas will prohibit growth. Your resumé won’t be improving, and you won’t be growing as a developer.

Ideally, if you switch projects you would want to switch to one in a different language than your last project. This will help cover both aspects of learning a new language and a new project. While you can always learn a new language in your spare time and on personal projects, you will generally learn faster if you’re thrown in the water as it were. Similar to learning a language by living in a foreign country, learning a new programming language is much easier if you’re thrust into the depths of it with no choice to procrastinate. You have to learn it to work on your project, which will help you gain new insight into development in general.

I’ll be starting this exciting adventure myself as I transition from my current project in Java to a new project in C++/Perl. While I’ve been meaning to for a while, I’ve never done any serious work in C/C++. Being forced into it by having to work on a code base that is primarily in C++ will help facilitate that learning process through experience. I’m excited for the opportunity and I feel that everyone should strive to make those sorts of changes in their work from time to time to keep fresh and productive.

An Idea for Tracer Bullets

August 6, 2010

My favorite software development related book, The Pragmatic Programmer, has a section in it where it mentions tracer bullets. The tracer bullet system they describe really reminds me of the scaffolding system that Rails made popular. It’s sort of a loose structure that gives you something to play with but that really needs to be fleshed out for your finished application. The idea behind using a tracer bullet, or scaffolding, is to have that basic structure to build with and help avoid the ‘blank page’ problem (writers and programmers both know that a blank page is the most difficult thing to write from). So scaffolding is useful, and what Dave and Andy remark as tracer bullets I’m going to call scaffolding for this piece. I would like to introduce a different idea for what tracer bullets are, and how they can help you focus on good Test Driven Development (TDD) and battle the problem of forgetfulness due to complexity.

Book cover for The Pragmatic Programmer

This is an amazing book. My top choice for any developer, especially ones just out of college or with limited 'real world' experience. Buy it, it's worth the price.

If you’ve ever worked on a new system or a larger refactoring of an old system, you’ll have noticed that you get into a sort of groove with what you’re doing. You look at the big picture and you start making your modifications. Something comes up though where you change a method signature and you have to adjust all of the places that use it, which maybe makes you rethink some basic designs and causes another smaller refactor or something during your larger one. Eventually when that’s all done you go back to what you were originally doing. You’re testing all the way which is good, but eventually you get to a point where you stop and say “I’m done”. Or at least that’s the idea. Often it comes out  more like “Am I done?” and you wrack your brain trying to think if you remembered to put everything into place or are you leaving out some small bit that’s going to cause a bug later on. If this has never happened to you and you don’t understand what I’m talking about, you may stop reading.

The main problem seems to be that you have this grand idea at the beginning, and you know pretty much all of the parts that you’re going to have to modify to make things work, you just loose track of what you’ve done and what you haven’t done. Now you can make a paper ToDo list at the start and check everything off, and that’s a viable method. However I would submit that you should utilize your best programming tool right from the start to keep track of your progress: your tests.

When you first collect your refactoring (or basic design) idea, you should know many of the places that you’ll need to modify in order for it to function. Create unit tests for each of these major ideas. These tests should fail with an error message relating to what the idea is and a note that it isn’t actually implemented yet. As you start to refactor, replace these tests with the actual tests for that piece of functionality. You won’t be fully removing the tests (just by having those tracer bullet tests to start with means there’s something that needs to change and those changes need to be tested), but you’ll be adding real tests for your changes to them. When all of your tracer tests are replaced, you should know that you’ve covered everything that your design required.

That doesn’t mean additional testing shouldn’t be done, there are often times areas that need to be modified or added that you did not originally envision. However, it should be a good start to tracking down those areas that need work. It should also prevent you from forgetting any of those key areas that you thought about originally but lost track of during the hectic course of development.

Tracer Bullets in this sense are really just empty failed tests that provide guidance as to what you need to work on. They’re not real tests, but they’re placeholders for where tests should be in the future. They act as a guide to help you figure out what you should be working on next. In addition, since you need to modify those failed tests for your build anyway, it should encourage you to work in a more test driven way by writing your tests first. Since you’ll look at your list of failed tests as your “ToDo” list, it will encourage your first action being to change those tests to something useful rather than a paper ToDo list which encourages you to jump into writing the application code before your tests.

Storm Trooper Helmet

As additional encouragement to practice Test Driven Development, here's the coercive face of failure.

Anything that keeps us more organized and removes unnecessary burdens to our mental flows is a helpful device for a programmer. Being able to utilize any technique that will increase your likelihood to properly test your application code is also a great benefit. This is just an idea I’ve been pondering for some weeks and I’m sure it’s not the only one for combining your design and testing in an up front mannor. If anyone else has any suggestions or practices that they use, please feel free to let me and others know what they are.

Interesting Work

July 8, 2010

One of my largest problems at my job is finding interesting work or making my work interesting. Without having the physical exertion associated with an outdoors job, having something that keeps you actively engaged not only increases productivity, but also personal enjoyment and quality of life. Basically, if you don’t find your work interesting, you’re not going to want to do it.

My Cat Mischief

My cat sometimes attacks the chair in her more crazy moments. She is always interesting, but I don't work with her.

Finding interesting work, or ways to make your work interesting, is not a very easy thing to do. But I find that sometimes those things that are boring are excellent opportunities to find ways to automate and therefor make a computer do instead. This serves two main purposes. The first is that you’re no longer doing boring work, a computer is. The second is that you just created some interesting work in creating a way to automate the boring stuff. Typically the stuff that’s boring is something that has no uniqueness to it and you have to repeat over and over again, which is the perfect target for automation anyway.

For example, testing is boring. Going through and finding all of the areas where your program can break and trying to make it happen can be a drag, especially when you have to do it for every release. However, creating automated tests is more interesting. This is especially true if you add extra flair such as making lava lamps turn on when a build breaks, or integrating it with an sms service that sends you texts every 5 minutes that the build is broken, causing you to drive back to work at 11pm to fix something wrong with the continuous integration system itself since the ops people decided to shut down one of your auxiliary systems. Ok, that’s less fun.

Having a passion for what you do and having your work be interesting is critical to your success in life. Hating what you do for a living and finding your work boring will just cause you to be bad at your job and unhappy in general. If you’re unable to discover a way to make your work more interesting for you, maybe you should consider changing career paths.

I don’t have any great suggestions for making any boring work fun. I know from experience that I personally enjoy taking any project and attempting to find the most elegant way to solve it with the best performance possible. Making sure that everything has documentation and that the unit tests cover over 90% of the code gives a wonderful sense of satisfaction. But any sort of goal that yields a high rate of satisfaction should be targeted as something to strive for in your day to day working life.

iPhone vs Evo

June 9, 2010

Updated: A friend corrected me that you don’t need a google voice number to forward calls straight to voicemail. I’ve updated my post accordingly.

Recently I switched from an iPhone 3GS to an HTC Evo. This was mostly due to wanting to switch away from AT&T to cut costs, but the choice was also fueled by my desire to experience an Android phone. After having waited outside of a Sprint store for an hour and a half I was rewarded with an HTC Evo 4G. There are several people that I know that would appreciate a rundown on the differences between the devices and what to expect because they are thinking about what to get as well. I thought I would document my own experiences and relate the differences both good and bad between the iPhone and the Evo.

While this is in part a comparison between the physical devices of an iPhone 3GS 32GB and an HTC Evo, it also is a comparison between the iPhone OS 3.1.3 and Android 2.1. Obviously some things will change when the iPhone 4 comes out along with iOS 4. This is a pretty hefty list of my impressions so it might be a bit long to read.

iPhone vs Evo

Stock images of an HTC Evo and iPhone. Note that they are not scaled to each other!

The image above may be somewhat misleading as it is just a composite of the stock images of both phones and is therefor not to scale. The Evo is larger than the iPhone by a perceptible amount. If you thought the iPhone was too big, you won’t like the Evo. However if you want to see more of what you’re doing, the Evo’s increased screen surface area is quite welcome. The iPhone’s screen is 3.5″ diagonally while the Evo’s is 4.3″. The resolution is also quite higher on the Evo to go with its larger size being at 480×800 compared to the 3Gs’s 320×480. Obviously this will change with the iPhone 4.

As far as the rest of the physical layout goes, the Evo has a kickstand on the back which is quite sturdy and pretty handy I think. I know I’ve tried to watch videos on the iPhone before and having to hold it in your hand is sort of a pain. There’s no real good way to prop it up. The Evo gets around that by having a built-in stand that lets it sit in landscape mode for watching vids on your desk (or floor as I did the other day).

The iPhone comes with a small switch above the volume controls that lets you put it into silent mode with a quick flick. There is no such switch on the Evo and one has to turn it on and press the volume down button until it goes into vibrate mode. Similarly you have to press the volume up button to bring it out and back to your normal levels again. Annoying I think. You can download a widget to make silencing a simple button press which is handy, but uses up screen space and still requires you to unlock your phone and press something on the screen.

The Evo sports 2 camers, a low res front facing one and a higher res rear facing one. Most of the time you’ll use the rear camera as it has higher quality, but if you want a quick pic of yourself or you want to do video chat the front camera is useful. The rear camera comes with an LED flash which can be handy in low light situations. The camera application for Android has way more controls including shutter speed, white balance, modes such as greyscale and sepia, and the ability to adjust the resolution. It can also zoom (though it looks like a digital zoom so the quality suffers, you might rather just crop after taking a regular photo), and record 720p video.

My cat Mischief on her plush throne. She was the unknowing model of one of my first Evo photos.

There is an HDMI port to plug your phone up to a TV if you wanted to, but I don’t own a cable and I can’t really imagine myself doing that very often. Still it’s nice I suppose since it’s there. The other port on the bottom of the phone is a mini USB port for data transfer and charging. One of the things that I really like about having the Evo now is that I can use the same cables on my phone as my fiance’s Palm Pixi or my Kindle. Using a standard type of cable rather than a “dock” connector means we can have just one car charger and exchange cables around the house with whatever is available. Also, replacing the cable should be cheaper.

Rather than just a home button, the Evo (and I assume most android phones), has 4 buttons on the bottom including a home button, menu, back, and search. This turns out to be nice in some ways, but less so in others. I find that applications for Android tend to rely on those buttons too much and as such apps are less intuitive on Android than iPhone since controls are hidden behind a menu or rely on a back button.

The virtual keyboard on the Evo is pretty standard, though laid out differently than the iPhone. I do like that it comes with a button to hide the keyboard so you can see more of the app underneath. Also the keyboard is set up by default to give very small vibrations as you press the buttons as feedback to your tapping. As the clicking noise of the iPhone annoys me (so I turned it off), the vibration is a welcome change for knowing when you’ve pressed a button. It also works on the navigational buttons on the bottom. The keyboard itself does auto-correction like the iPhone does, but it seems less accurate on the word that I was looking for. I prefer, however, Android’s practice of showing you possible matches as you’re typing, letting you choose one of 4 possible matches.  The built-in dictionary can be added to if you type in something that doesn’t appear on the list of matches, and I thought it odd that by default it was missing things like ‘voicemail’. Also if you type something in and want to make a correction, it’s more difficult to place your cursor on the Evo than it is on the iPhone. On the iPhone you can get a little magnifying glass showing your cursor position if you hold down the tap, the the Evo you just have to tap and hope it was close enough. If not, tap again. Holding the tap down just brings up a menu for selecting text and copying and pasting.

In a way it’s nice that the battery is removable so that you can carry a spare, upgrade it, or replace it yourself. Unfortunately the battery doesn’t seem to last very long. It may be that my phone battery just wasn’t ‘seasoned’ yet, but a day from 9am to 11pm doing pretty much nothing but standby brought it down to 5% battery. Now this also could have been because I had applications running in the background that I didn’t know about, and there are apps out there to monitor and kill unwanted background applications. It’s a bit more of a hassle, but it might help my battery woes. Luckily one of the really neat features with an android phone is that the battery information screen will actually tell you what applications or services are using up the most battery.

Under the battery is the micro SD card. By default you get an 8GB card. You can upgrade to a 32GB one, but I’ve not seen anyone sell anything larger than 16GB. You can swap out as many as you want to give yourself more storage, but its placement makes that impracticable. Also until Android 2.2 is out on the phone, you can only use the 440MB of internal memory for storing applications, unlike on the iPhone where it’s all one space that you can install apps and have data. However, the other side of that on the Android is that you can see the whole filesystem and actually save files directly on the Evo and transfer them later to your computer.

This brings me to one of my biggest annoyances with the Evo, especially after having come from a set if iPhones: sync. Basically sync on an iPhone blows android out of the water. There’s no de-facto integrated package for syncing contacts, calendars, email accounts, photos, videos, and music on Android. There is an attempt to do some of those things with double-twist which is a sort of iTunes clone, but it fails in a lot of ways. Music syncing isn’t too bad, but videos need to be put into playlists for any type of control and photo syncing is basically broken. For photos it copies all of your photos into a single directory and skips ones whose names match. This means if you’re using a digital camera that labels photos with something like DSCF1293.jpg and you have 2 folders with different photos with the same name, you won’t get one of the photos. Also since it doesn’t sync folders you lose any organizational ability. I was surprised that Picasa doesn’t have any Android syncing, but it seems to not be important to Google. What’s also frustrating is that due to digital photography making larger and larger files it is hard to sync your entire library. I ended up using Picasa’s export feature to scale down photos in a separate directory that I would copy to the Evo. Picasa forces you to export one directory at a time so it can be a tedious process.

The photo application that came with the Evo can link up to your flickr and facebook photo albums, but strangely enough not Picasaweb. I thought that was really odd considering Android is a google OS and the gallery application seems like it would be standard. Apparently there is another gallery application (some call it gallery3d) that can link to Picasa to view your web photos. If you don’t mind the minor delay and paying $5 a year for 20GB of photo storage (a good deal), then you can avoid copying photos to your phone all together and just use Picasa’s web photos. You’ll save space on your phone for music and video as well.

Since the phone can run multiple applications, it needs to be able to tell you when something has happened with one of them. On the iPhone you would receive a notification popup that would block whatever you were doing in order to handle it. This can be really annoying if you’re in a game or even just browsing a web page. On Android, there is a very nice notification system that places notification icons at the top of the screen near the battery and cell status info. You can drag from the top of the screen down to expand the notifications and deal with them as you see fit. You can also clear them if you don’t wish to act on them. This is helpful for apps like Meebo which tell you your status or if you have a new IM at the top while not getting in the way of your current application.

The app stores on both devices are fairly similar. They both divide apps up into categories and have tabs for top free and top paid applications along with a search. An interesting addition to the Android market though is the ability to install apps via a barcode scanner. You have to download a separate barcode scanner app first, but after that you can scan codes like the one below to launch the marketplace installer for that app. It’s good for when you see an app on your computer but you don’t want to type in the info or search box on your phone. Just scan and go.

This is the QR code for Replica Island, an open source game for Android.

When you want to uninstall an application, the iPhone has a much easier system of just tap-holding and clicking on an X. In Android you need to go to Settings -> Applications -> Manage Applications, click on the application, then click on uninstall. Interestingly enough you can also go to the Market app -> Downloads, click on the app, and do an uninstall from there. Either way it’s not quite as easy as on the iPhone.

Applications can do more than just run in the foreground taking up the whole screen, they can also be (or supply) widgets that run on one of your home pages providing information or interaction on their own. There are many handy widgets such as Pandora’s radio controls, clocks, a calendar, quick contacts, a friend feed streamer, and probably a lot of other ones. The ability to get quick info without having to open a full app can save a bunch of time that you would be spending opening and closing custom apps for simple things. Unfortunately on the Evo you have to be careful of how many widgets you use as screen real estate isn’t as plentiful as on the iPhone. There are 7 screens to the home page instead of the iPhone’s 9, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. For all I know there might be an app to increase the number of screens. The android also has a nifty spaces-like display of all of your screens that you can access by hitting the home button while on the center home screen.

Making phone calls is probably important for a phone as well, and the Evo does the job ok. It’s sprint rather than AT&T which can mean different things to different people in different places. For me it runs faster and more reliably, but I have good Spring coverage and AT&T wasn’t so good in my area. One thing to watch for though with the Evo on Sprint is that unlike the iPhone on AT&T, voice and data do not go together. This means if you’re using a data app like an IM client and you make or receive a call, you’ll get disconnected from your app (unless you’re on wireless). Not too big of a deal for me, but an interesting note. If you’re lucky enough to be in 4G coverage, this isn’t a concern as 4G works with both data and voice. I don’t have 4G yet though so I can’t comment on that.

The Evo has multi-touch, but I don’t think the apps support it as well as on the iPhone. For instance, if I receive an HTML email there is no way for me to zoom in and out to various parts of it in the email apps that came with the phone. It’s possible that a 3rd party app would allow you to do so, but the default ones are lacking in that area. Other apps don’t always take into consideration orientation as much as apps on the iPhone seem to, but that could just be my luck with applications so far.

The iPhone brought out visual voicemail which was amazing at the time. The Evo has this as well by default, but even better is the ability to get a Google Voice account which acts like visual voicemail on crack. You not only get to see the message in an inbox like setting, but Google with transcribe the messages as well. You can set custom greetings on a group or person basis so that certain people get certain messages. You can also set up special rules such as certain numbers going straight to voicemail or dropped completely.

My Evo came with an application from Sprint that seems actually quite useful (not the NASCAR one), it’s called Sprint Navigation. It’s basically a turn-by-turn GPS direction program but it’s better than my current GPS in my car in that it will use traffic data to reroute you to get to your destination faster. While my GPS can also do this, it has a subscription fee. No fee on the Evo though so that’s a gain.

So that’s what I can think of and have experienced for now. I used to have an iPhone and this new one is definitely different, and not bad at all. All things being the same I’m not really sure which phone I would choose. I do know that for me, developing apps on Android will be a lot easier than iPhone, but that’s not a normal concern. Hopefully this little comparison will help someone make their decision and give a better idea about some of the differences between the two phones.

From iPhone to Android

June 2, 2010

Starting this friday I’ll be losing my wonderful iPhone and immersing myself into the world of Android with the HTC Evo. The decision has less to do with dissatisfaction with the iPhone or the merits of Android, and more with moving from AT&T to Sprint. My fiancé had been on Verizon and I was on AT&T. Her contract was up and we decided to merge to a family plan of some sort to save money. While originally we were going to move her to AT&T, she didn’t like any of the phones and AT&T was a bit expensive (and a pain to set up). After some research, it became a simple math problem that Sprint won out by saving us $50 a month.

Android Logo

The Android Logo is a little green robot man. Hopefully he will prove to be friendly.

So I’m selling my iPhone (eBay link) and switching to the Evo in order to save some money. However, this does bring up an excellent opportunity as a developer. Mainly in starting to learn about Android development for making mobile applications.

I find the Android development environment quite interesting. I’m not as big of an eclipse fan, preferring IntelliJ IDEA myself, but the Android integration with Eclipse is mighty slick. Having it bring up the simulator was probably as easy as it is for the iPhone. Interesting opportunities arise.

While programming for the iPhone is all done in Objective-C, programs in Android are done in Java or other JVM compatible languages. The ability to use Scala or Groovy for making mobile applications. Granted the integration for Scala and Groovy might not be as good as straight up Java, but it’s still a benefit that it’s available. Also, since I’m a Java developer at my day job, jumping into Android programming should be a lot easier as I will just need to get used to mobile development and not a whole programming language at the same time.

However there are parts of my iPhone I will miss. Since I play Go a lot, I’ve been very involved using a program called Boardz for turn based play. I’m not sure if there’s a good alternative app for the Android (I’m sure I’ll be looking on Friday). However, if there is not it actually provides me with an excellent opportunity. Basically to create my own version for the Android.

You see, I’ve always been interested in doing personal projects, but I’m never able to come up with a good idea. Having an excellently delivered piece of mobile software that will be unavailable on my new platform gives me a perfect opportunity to recreate a similar program for myself and others. I’ve already started a bit by starting a project to convert parts of the Fuego Go library over to Java. Ideally when I have a basic library for dealing with SGF files and game moves along with calculating things like ko and final scores, I’ll be able to plug in a nice Android interface to it and build a server, maybe on App Engine, to handle game events.

If anyone is interested in collaborating on a project like that, drop me a comment. I’ll have some actual code posted to my github project page later today.

Fun at Maker Faire

May 28, 2010

I have not been posting as much as I would like. I’ll be returning to 3 posts a week (excluding holidays) to try to get back into the swing of things.

This last weekend my fiancé and I attended Maker Faire up in northern California along with some friends. It was an interesting time, and one that I would recommend anyone near a Maker Faire attend.

A picture of the Maker Shed from All of the neat toys you might buy were sold here.

I think the most interesting of the many projects that we saw at the faire was a 4 player version of simon says. They used 16 dome lights, 4 in front of each player build into a square table. In the middle there were several clear tubes that had LEDs at the bottom of them. The tubes would light up a series of lights (and accompanying sound) that the players were supposed to mimic, just like the original electronic game. More colors would be added to the end of the sequence each round and the last player standing would win. Then the game would reset.

For me it was interesting because it was fun to play (or watch play, as Ash played it and not me), and because I’m pretty sure I could build it myself. The whole thing was powered by an arduino and the parts seemed pretty basic for a game like that.

That is what the Maker Faire is about in my opinion. Seeing cool stuff and thinking of how you could make it yourself or improve upon other people’s designs. Granted I wasn’t going to start building large musical tesla coils, but a Simon Says game with lights and buttons is an interesting project to handle.

One of my favorite parts of the whole event was probably the Makers Shed. It was a physical version of the online store. If I were rich, I would have filled my car up with the interesting kits, books, and parts that lay in that hall. Instead, I came home with a few kits and books, including a Minty Boost kit from Adafruit. After having bought a 10-pack of altoids gum, I worked through the kit and was rewarded with a portable usb charger.

Soldered this together a few nights ago from a kit I acquired from Maker Faire. Handy little device that keeps my fiancé's cell phone charged on the go.

So it was another step on my path to making things. I’ll probably make another (I have a lot of gum tins now) so that we can both have one.

Relating Development To Go

May 14, 2010

This is a really niche topic of discussion. Those who have both practiced software development and played/studied Go may appreciate the relation. If you’ve never played go and are not a software developer… well I can’t really help you there. However, today I found the similarities astounding.

There are a lot of terms from Go that are used to describe the game or situations in the game. Things like “lightness” and “flexibility” where your stones are spread out to cover a larger area but with gaps in the middle. The idea being that since they are spread out you’re not too attached to any one stone and can adjust your battle plan by sacrificing a single weak stone rather than being forced to protect a large group of more valuable, and yet still weak, stones. If you cluster your stones together too much, especially at the beginning, you’re said to be over concentrated and are not being very efficient with your stones. Your stones can become “heavy” when they’re too large to lose, but very difficult to keep from being captured. You are forced to make moves that benefit your opponent more than yourself just to make sure you don’t lose those heavy stones.

Japanese style floor goban. Large board tables like this are often made of Kaya, a rare japanese tree known for it's properties as Go board. They are often very expensive.

What does this have to do with software development? Quite a bit actually, especially if you follow the Agile Development Methodology. When creating a software design, you will be more rewarded if you keep your design light and flexible, able to adapt to new change as it happens. The ability to sacrifice (refactor) a weak section will help your greater strategy of winning (producing a complete product). When pieces of your development get heavy, they are difficult to refactor, possibly because they’re not designed to be tested. When modifying that section of your code, it tends to break other sections. Since you built a bad foundation early on and refused to sacrifice it (refactor), you end up being stuck trying to save a dying design and spend a lot of time and effort for little gain.

Once you’ve sacrificed enough bad designs and followed your test driven development to the proper design, your code becomes flexible and more maneuverable. In Go terms, sections of it become “Alive“. Building off of those sections, as long as you keep to your design principles, makes fixing bugs and developing new structures a lot easier.

There are several ways to play go. There is speed Go, where you give yourself only a few seconds to play your piece. There is Go played with a normal time limit, usually an hour or so for each player with some overtime after that. And there’s games which are not timed at all. Speed Go often results in a lot of mistakes, however you can finish a game a lot faster. The result won’t be the best however, and you wouldn’t want to use it to represent your skill in the game. Regular Go is what is good enough for most people. You spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about most moves, but in general you rely more upon any experience you have than reading out the board. In an game that isn’t timed you can really sit and concentrate on your move. You might think about dozens of possibilities of what you could play and the replies your opponent can make and future moves you would make to those replies, etc. It can take a long time, but the resulting moves can be brilliant at times, and often will result in the best game.

I find that too many people play Speed Go in their development efforts. They’re told “Fix this bug” or “Make something that does this” and they open up their IDE or programmer’s editor or echo and cat and put some code in files trying to solve the problem as fast as possible. Problems are dealt with as they come up. There isn’t really a design per say, just how the code all comes together. The problem with this is that the code created by Speed Code is often very problem specific and difficult to fix and modify. There’s no flexibility, and often pieces of the code are heavy.

The last form, coding without a time limit, can yield some surprising results. I’m not saying that you should give everyone unlimited time to code even the most simple of things, nothing would get done. Nor should you try to get the “perfect” design before coding anything, as what you’ll get in the end won’t be worth the time spent. Rather I think that, especially at the start of the project, some actual thought should be put into what you’re coding. This thought shouldn’t be just in your head however, it should be in the form of Tests. If you write up tests that utilize the code you haven’t even written yet, you can get a good design before you code. If it seems hard to test, try something else. You should be writing and throwing away tests as you work on the design of the piece of code you’re tackling. This is equivalent of reading ahead moves in a Go game, seeing where the pieces might lead.

Of course there’s only so far reading ahead will get you. Soon enough you’ll have to implement what you’ve designed and look at the next piece. However, don’t assume just because you have tests and an implementation and that they all work that you can’t change them any more. Everything you write should be flexible to be rewritten or refactored and thrown away or modified to handle new business rules or requirements. Having the tests in place will make modifying the code easier as you’ll see where things will break and can modify them accordingly.

I noticed this correlation in my own code just today. I was finishing up an implementation before moving on to the more difficult part of my project when I realized that from the structure I have built up and the loose framework that I’ve designed, the “difficult” part of the project was able to be solved in the framework that currently existed. The same framework that I’ve built up and torn down and built up several times over the past few months.

Coaster Bot

April 1, 2010

There is currently a contest by Make Magazine to create a coaster bot. I’m not looking to really win or anything, but it is a good excuse to create a robot of some sort.

Wall-E is a good example of a Robot. Also, pictures make posts more interesting I've been told.

I’ve ordered a few parts such as a pair of motors, some wheels, and a bunch of hexes of steel and aluminum for structure support. Unfortunately I don’t have much in the way of sensors so I’m not sure how I’m going to have it interact with the outside world. The only sensors I’ve ordered were a few ambient light sensors, but that doesn’t really help with navigation other than perhaps telling the robot to stop when it becomes dark (because you’re likely to be eaten by a grue).

Fortunately, sensors are really just devices that send some sort of electric signal when they “sense” something. Digital sensors will be basically an on-off sort of thing such as a sound impact sensor that detects loud sound changes like clapping. I’ll need some sort of sensor to detect other objects so the robot can perform some sort of navigation.

Luckily, there’s a simple sensor that I’m pretty sure I can build myself without buying an expensive sensor module. That is a touch sensor. The idea behind a touch sensor is to detect when the robot has basically run into something so that it can react to that in the future. I can do this by placing some pieces of material on the front of the robot that will bend slightly when the robot hits something, causing a piece of metal to complete a circuit and send a signal to the microcontroller.

If it looks like a hacked up ugly version of a large button, well it is. The idea is taken from the Lego Mindstorm kit that I played with in College. I should be able to find some scrap metal (maybe a washer or something) for the touch contact and another washer and some wire for the internals. I’m not sure what to make the touch arms out of yet, maybe some sort of wood or see if I have any plastic pieces laying around. Ideally I suppose I would use a part of a CD, but I don’t have any good tools for cutting and working with them. I’ll look into it though

Very rough diagram. The gold lines are just wires or plates that will connect to the Microcontroller.

The touch sensor design can be augmented for other uses as well. If you place a rod with a wheel attached to it on the underside of the front of the robot you can add an additional contact that will activate when that front wheel drops too low (such as when stairs or a ledge are encountered). It might not look pretty, but it won’t look pretty if the robot falls and smashes either.

So the robot itself will need to be able to navigate a space, around objects and such, in order to qualify. The touch sensor is a good start on that path, but it might be unfortunate that the robot will only be able to avoid something after having rammed into it. My cat might not like this much.

Another aspect of the contest is that the robot needs to be able to accept additional sensors to help it navigate. That seems easy enough, though it’s mostly on the programming side (the side I’m least worried about). Ideally I’ll be able to acquire some range finders, either ultrasonic sonar or maybe some sort of laser range finder.

Of which, lasers eventually need to be involved. I’m not sure how or in what capacity, but lasers are cool.

So this is the start of my CoasterBot build. I’ve ordered the motors and a few wheels along with a bunch of other construction parts. I probably should have ordered more wheels but I’ll manage I’m sure. I don’t know what’s going to come of it, but I’m sure it will be neat.

Do Research. Don’t Be Just A Code Monkey.

March 22, 2010

I don’t think that good developers are good because they’re overly smart and well suited for the work. Being smart is definitely a plus as it helps get to the heart of problems faster, but even the blade of the keenest intellect will be rendered blunt by the muffling sheathe of ignorance.

Waxing poetic aside, you can’t do a good job if you don’t know what you’re doing. No matter how good you think you might be, you can be better by research, study, and experimentation. I feel that this sentiment applies not only to programming, but to all matters of life. The driving force behind this reckless abandon in the pursuit of knowledge and research is passion. You might not have a passion for your job, but hopefully you have a passion for programming (assuming your a programmer… insert other career as it will work well enough in substitute). If you don’t, consider finding a different career, one you have a drive and desire to succeed in. You’ll go farther in an area you have a passion for than one you don’t. It’s better to be an expert at a “lesser” career than a bad or mediocre at a “higher” career. No one wants a rocket surgen that doesn’t really have a passion for rocket surgery.

“But how?” you may ask, thinking that just saying to ‘research’ without any idea of what goal to pursue isn’t very helpful advice at all. Well that might be true, but everyone’s passions, interests, and job requirements will differ so saying ‘learn about parallel processing’ or ‘research distributed computing’ or ‘learn Ruby, it’s awesome’ isn’t very helpful either. But there are a few methods you can use to start your exploration.

The main idea is to explore areas around your current job, but perhaps not directly related. Try learning a different language that you could, theoretically, implement your same work project in if you knew the ins and outs of it. Maybe start a personal project at home that uses that language to discover the differences between it and something else you already use. Sometimes the features of one language can give you ideas how to better use the one you’re stuck with. If you’ve ever used closures in Ruby (or another language that has them), you’ll start thinking about your Java or C code quite a bit differently.

Another excellent thing to do is learn a new framework or way of doing things that is not the norm for your day to day job. Let’s say you’re writing web apps that deal with a lot of relational database transactions and data manipulation. Try learning about non-relational databases such as object databases or NoSQL. There are many open sourced, non-sql dependent databases that you can try out to learn how you can store and retrieve semi-structured data in a non-relational way. Try to figure out the benefits you gain with your current methods, and compare them to the benefits you’d gain if you switched to a different one. You probably won’t switch your work project over, most people don’t have the authority to do such a thing, but it’s still useful because you’ll open your eyes to different ways of doing things which will end up translating to useful knowledge in your daily job.

Learn a new language every year. Do personal projects in that language. If it’s scripting, maybe make some scripts to help your day to day life out a little. Knowing how to utilize more langages will help you appreciate the differences of them and allow you to be better able to pick the best tool for a given job. It also doesn’t hurt when someone at the office starts asking for someone with experience in some new language and you’re the one who knows anything about it. Embrace change, and don’t get stuck in a rut.

Learn something new every day. Be it a use for a framework, a new language feature, or just something about your own code. Continually learning is critical in the high tech field, as you’re knowledge goes out of date way faster than a lot of other professions. Letting yourself get out of date is like letting a knife rust. It won’t be very useful to its user for long, and will be replaced if it gets too far worn.

Test your code before you write it. Test Driven Development really works. You’ll end up writing way more test code than you ever did before, which is a good thing. You might also notice that you structure your code differently if you write your tests first. The main idea is to allow each piece of code to be tested individually from any other piece of code. If you have a class that you want to test a method of, you should be able to fully test that method without implementing any other class. Any reliance on another classes behavior should be implemented through mock objects. Keep your code decoupled and program based on interfaces. It might not be a bad idea to look into a dependency injection framework, or to get familiar with the finer points of the factory design pattern.

Learning and knowledge is the key to success in our world. I would much rather have someone who’s passionate and willing to put in some work to learn how things work and how to do things better than the average day to day code monkey on my team rather than a good code monkey. The second can implement things that I ask for, but the first can invent new implementations and design reusable code that is worth 3x the code monkey.

3D Printing and Electronics

March 10, 2010

I was recently approached by a friend of mine to join forces and create a DIY 3D printer. For those who don’t know, a 3D printer is a machine that can fabricate 3D objects that are rendered in a computer using a medium such as plastic, rubber, or sugar. Much of the design is similar to a regular desktop printer, except that instead of using ink it uses a building material, and instead of just printing in 2 directions, it has a moving platform that lowers to allow for the 3rd dimension. It really just prints the material in several 2D layers that build up to slowly create a physical object. Useful in prototyping and art.

My main desire for having a 3D printer is to build housing and components for an arduino. It would be much easier to custom create components from a 3D model for me than to hand make them out of wood or metal, especially since I lack in a decent work shop with power tools. Commercial 3D printers run from $15k up, but DIY kits can be had for under a grand. I’m not sure when my resources will allow me that indulgence, but it’s something to look forward to in the future.

However, my recent fascination in the Arduino, physical computing, and robotics in general have made me wonder if I shouldn’t have also gotten a degree in Electrical Engineering. The college I graduated from did not offer that degree, however the field has begun to interest me increasingly so. I might try to look up some electronics courses at a local community college to expand my horizons.

In the meantime, one of the best ways of learning is not through an institution but through research and experimentation. For experimentation I have to wait for my arduino to arrive (it should be here on friday), but as for research, there are more possibilities in that area. I’m looking at some books on the subject, but I’m not quite sure where is the best place to start. I could focus on some of the physics and basic text books on the subject, or focus more on the experimentation and practical usages. If anyone out there has a good learning road map to a non-colligate learning curriculum on hobbyest electrical engineering, let me know. 🙂

In a slightly different ramble, I’m discovering that my leanings seem to be towards the lower level and possibly abstract areas of programming and engineering. I’ve been focusing my code on creating libraries rather than single use programs. Code reuse has always been an interesting topic in computer science I feel. It’s greatly expounded upon as one of the benefits of object oriented and modular code, the ability for reuse. However I’ve noticed that many developers, and entire teams of developers, rarely write any code that is reused in another project. They will use code from existing libraries such as the Java Standard Library, but will not often create them. However, I feel drawn to making base items that can be reused in multiple projects and by other people.

I think this is why electronic engineering fascinates me so much right now. It’s one of those areas where lower level library code is very much in need. If I can design and create a device that can interface with a microcontroller to perform some interesting action, I would then need to write a driver or library to make that interaction more abstract and easier for a basic user. I haven’t done much C/C++/Assembly programming so I’ve never written a driver, and that’s where my knowledge of theory and experience deviate.

Gaining some practical experience for basic theory is that area of excitement that I feel I can achieve by wiring up components to a microcontroller and building devices that have not yet been built. An exciting prospect that, in the end, I feel will help to improve myself as a developer.