Monthly Archives: December 2007

It’s not the Code, Stupid

Programming is not about programming.

I came to this realization after reviewing my XP and Agile books as part of an engagement for a large client. I must confess that each time I start on my XP books I have a hard time because I start laughing when I compare the books to reality. I think I finally can explain why.

It’s not that I don’t buy into Agile and XP — heck, I was doing a lot of that stuff long before those books were ever published. It’s just basic performance-based project management. I guess I always felt that in the theory and applied theory department, some of the XP and agile software authors either didn’t know what they were doing or just making it up as they went along. I especially found funny their skewed view of “heavyweight” systems like RUP, CMM, CMMI, etc. The authors told horror stories about these other systems and then pointed out how much better their tactics were. After working with people who helped write the CMM and RUP, I found most of these guys don’t want onerous paperwork systems — these paperwork monstrosities are created by the practitioners, not the inventors. Then there was the whole cult of personality in the Agile/XP space that I found non-productive. To top it off, the XP books in particular felt more like political statements than serious tools for figuring out what software construction was all about. They were the kind of book to sell to frustrated programmers laboring under a huge paperwork beast and saying “We’ve got it all wrong!” Power to the people, man!

Understanding how Agile/XP ran off the rails will help you to understand why software development is not about developing software.

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The Guy

I am continually amazed at how a form of hero-worship exists in IT.

Just a few months ago, I was fortunate enough to apply for funding at Y-Combinator. It’s like a boot camp for startups. It was formed in part by a guy named Paul Graham, who wrote a book called “Hackers and Painters”

I was turned on to the book by a employee for one of my clients. “You have to read this book. It’s all about programming. Paul Graham is great!” I was told.

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Test your Installs

Lesson for the day — always test your installs. If you don’t, this could happen to you.

Shortly after releasing EVE Online: Trinity at 22:04 GMT on Wednesday, 5 December, we started receiving reports that the Classic to Premium graphics content upgrade was causing problems to players by deleting the file C:\boot.ini, which is a Windows system startup file. In some cases the computer was not able to recover on the next startup and would not start until the file had been fixed.

Oops.

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Turning Stopwatches into Tricorders

Classic Star Trek Tricorder
how close are we to developing something like this?

I read a fascinating article last week on the state of atomic clocks. There’s nothing more fun than rank scientific speculation, so let’s have a go.

First we start with a little text from the article over on wired. It’s about how small and precise atomic clocks are becoming

Cesium, though, is a grandfather clock compared to the 456 trillion cycles per second of calcium, or the 518 trillion provided by an atom of ytterbium. Hollberg’s group is dedicated to tuning into these particles, which hold the key to a scary level of precision. Microwaves are too slow for this job — imagine trying to merge onto the Autobahn in a Model T — so Hollberg’s clocks use colored lasers instead.

“Each atom has its own spectral signature,” says Hollberg. Calcium resonates to red, ytterbium to purple. At their most ambitious, NIST scientists hope to wring 10-18 out of a single trapped mercury ion with a chartreuse light — slicing a second of time into a quadrillion pieces.

At that level, clocks will be precise enough that they’ll have to correct for the relativistic effects of the shape of the earth, which changes every day in reaction to environmental factors. (Some of the research clocks already need to account for changes in the NIST building’s size on a hot day.) That’s where the work at the Time and Frequency Division begins to overlap with cosmology, astrophysics and space-time.

By looking at the things that upset clocks, it’s possible to map factors like magnetic fields and gravity variation. “Environmental conditions can make the ticking rate vary slightly,” says O’Brian.

That means passing a precise clock over different landscapes yields different gravity offsets, which could be used to map the presence of oil, liquid magma or water underground. NIST, in short, is building the first dowsing rod that works.

On a moving ship, such a clock would change rate with the shape of the ocean floor, and even the density of the earth beneath. On a volcano, it would change with the moving and vibrating of magma within. Scientists using maps of these variations could differentiate salt and freshwater, and perhaps eventually predict eruptions, earthquakes or other natural events from the variations in gravity under the surface of the planet.

Reading the environment from the relativistic effects that mass has? I might be wrong, but that sounds a lot like a “Star Trek” moment to me.

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Philosophy and Software Development

Recently one of my large clients asked me to come out and look at their development process. It underscored even more to me the relationship between philosophy and software development.

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