Improving Wetware

Because technology is never the issue

Appropriate Complexity

Posted by Pete McBreen 27 Dec 2011 at 20:12

All too often in software development I hear the comment that there must be a “simpler/easier way.”

Unfortunately, although sometimes simple solutions are workable, in most cases the simplest solution is not workable. Or rather the simple solution would be workable in some circumstances, but not for the current project becasue of some fairly obvious deficiencies in the simple solution.

Some thoughts about the media

Posted by Pete McBreen 28 Oct 2011 at 20:55

Seems strange to be linking to an article in Slate

The mainstream media thrives on simple solutions. It has no idea whatsoever of how to report on a story that isn’t about easy fixes so much as it is about anguished human frustration and fear. The media prides itself on its ability to tell you how to clear your clutter, regrout your shower, or purge your closet of anything that makes you look fat—in 24 minutes or less. It is bound to be flummoxed by a protest that offers up no happy endings.

Definitely no easy fixes when three slow moving changes are coming together - concentration of wealth, climate change and peak oil – it is as if we are running into the Limits to Growth

The Essence of Craftsmanship

Posted by Pete McBreen 19 Oct 2011 at 20:58

From On Bullshit by Harry G Frankfurt:

In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners, They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. [pp 20-21]

Even the Onion gets on on the act

Posted by Pete McBreen 07 Sep 2011 at 10:51

Had to smile at this one.

We Need To Do More When It Comes To Having Brief, Panicked Thoughts About Climate Change

Science and extraordinary claims

Posted by Pete McBreen 02 Sep 2011 at 21:34

From thinkProgress.org

There is a famous saying in science: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In this case, the arguments for climate change are backed up by such an astounding degree of science and evidence, that one, or even a few, papers that claim to refute the science of climate change deserve careful scrutiny. As the author of Skeptico notes:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence. The evidence for the extraordinary claim must support the new claim as well as explain why the old claims that are now being abandoned, previously appeared to be correct.”

An Inquiry Into The Value Of Work

Posted by Pete McBreen 18 Jul 2011 at 19:55

Some interesting parallels to Software Craftsmanship in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Focus is on working in the so called craft trades, specifically as Electrician and Motorcycle Mechanic.

Parallels are uncanny in the way that both books address Scientific Management, but Soulcraft found a very interesting quote from one of Ford’s biographers

So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963. (pg 42)

Small wonder then that Ford was forced to double the wages of the factory staff in order to retain workers. Of course this has since been spun as Ford wanting the workers to be able to afford the cars they were making, but it sure seems like it was a defensive move based on turnover.

Dealing With Aging Infrastructure

Posted by Pete McBreen 09 Jul 2011 at 20:28

Now that the last shuttle launch has taken place, and with no replacement yet available, it is sobering to think that some bits of infrastructure are even older than the Space Shuttle.

Car and Driver have a report on the state of the interstate highway system and it does not sound good.

Now massive sections of the interstate, including almost all of  them near major cities, have reached the end of their useful life; the interstates were designed to last 20 or 30 years, but now some areas are pushing 50 years and handling far more traffic than their planners anticipated. But as we reach into our wallets, we run into our generation’s big dilemma: We’re nearly broke.

In many ways the interstates are like the space shuttle. The design lifetime has been known for a long time, but the political will to put in the necessary investment to get a replacement available in time was not there. While the lack of a space shuttle is not critical, it does have major implications for the International Space Station, which can now only be reached by Soyuz rockets that were designed even earlier than the space shuttle.

Crumbling interstates and bridges are a much bigger concern since they affect how well the overall economy runs. Lose a major bridge as the Car and Driver report highlights, and suddenly life in a city grinds to a halt as people have to find alternative routes.

  • What other bits of our infrastructure are aging and soon going to need replacement?
  • Have we done the necessary investment to be able to build the replacements in time?

Some climate links

Posted by Pete McBreen 23 Jun 2011 at 21:34

Clearing up the climate debate

The Rolling Stone piece Climate of Denial

Not climate, but about useful questions for a different denial community from PZ Myers

Another take on the Software Engineering idea

Posted by Pete McBreen 23 Jun 2011 at 21:28

Why Software Development Will Never be Engineering

Basic idea in the article is that things like bridge building are now fairly static. The types of bridges we know how to build are well codified and replicable. Not mentioned in the article is that novel bridges still have novel problems, but after a few mistakes the construction engineers seem to resolve most of the issues.

Software development is different because it keeps on changing. The article argues that 10 years ago the future seemed to involve UML and CASE tools, but that the current state of the art of software development (Agile) does not use either of them.

Magical Thinking

Posted by Pete McBreen 07 Jun 2011 at 22:12

There is a constant refrain that occurs whenever people try to achieve anything

There must be an easier way

We learn this lesson at an early age and never forget it. The toy problems we are “challenged” with while learning always have an easy solution. Sometimes the easy solution is non-obvious and hard to find, but there is always a trick that makes solving the problem easy.

Unfortunately the world does not work this way — but we want to be tricked into thinking that it does.

Some examples:

  • Finding the one food that will help the pounds melt away
  • A pill that will cure all diseases
  • The invisible hand of the market
  • Buying a CASE tool to improve code quality
  • Adopting Extreme Programming
  • Thinking that Requirements Traceability makes systems better

Whether we think of these as “Silver Bullets” or a “Technological Fix”, it seems that we are hardwired to seek out simple solutions. In part this could be because we are so good at pattern recognition that we see a pattern where none exists.

All of this makes progress in software development difficult, because collectively we don’t want to believe how hard it is to deliver reliable systems. There has to be an easier way …

Understanding The Fundamentals

Posted by Pete McBreen 31 May 2011 at 23:01

Is there a Mathematics Generation Gap

Calculators became affordable in the mid- to late-1970s. Students in the 1980s were taught by teachers who had learned mathematics without calculators, and could do basic mental arithmetic. Students today might be taught by a teacher who is himself unable to work out 37+16 without help. The consequences are neatly described in an “Alex” cartoon I have on my fridge about a proposal to ban the use of calculators in school. “Faced with home work which requires him to work out simple sums in his head today’s lazy seven-year-old will instinctively turn to the quick and easy method of arriving at the answer… i.e. asking his dad, who, embarrassingly also wouldn’t have a clue without a calculator.”

Implications of this could be interesting for software development. When there is a large part of the workforce unable to do simple calculations without the use of a “Guessing Box” I expect there will be a lot more errors in software. Or at least errors that can be attributed to the Garbage In, Garbage Out problem of the users (and developers) not having the basic skills to detect implausible answers from systems.

An Economist Admits There Is A Problem

Posted by Pete McBreen 24 May 2011 at 16:30

Brad DeLong admits to a problem

Four years ago we economists were writing learned papers about the “Great Moderation”: about how it looked as though the governing institutions of the world economy had finally learned how to control and moderate if not completely eliminate the business cycle–the epileptic seizures of the economy that leave us with pointlessly high unemployment, pointlessly idle capacity, and pointlessly rusting away machines in spite of there being no fundamental cause for machines to be idle, factories closed, and workers unemployed. In such an epileptic seizure of the economy, workers are unemployed and machines are idle because there isn’t the demand to employ them, and there isn’t the demand to employ because the workers are unemployed and have no incomes.

We have been seeing these epileptic seizures called business cycles fairly regularly since at least 1825.

And we have been claiming that we have it licked fairly regularly since 1825 as well.

British Prime Minister Robert Peel thought we had it licked with his Bank of England reforms in the 1840s.

While some of the explanations in that post are to my mind a bit off, the overall message is that economics is still not very good at predicting what will happen with the economy.

Story About The Start Of Scientific Management

Posted by Pete McBreen 21 Apr 2011 at 11:04

An older article from The Atlantic, on Management Myths. Telling comment from the viewpoint of Scientific Management

the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

Worth a read if only for the historical perspective.

Strange error from RubyGems due to linux prelink ...

Posted by Pete McBreen 07 Apr 2011 at 14:32

After installing Ruby 1.9.2 from source on Centos, a few days later got a strange error from rake and gem commands

# gem list
<internal:lib/rubygems/custom_require>:29:in `require': No such file or directory - ?? (Errno::ENOENT)
       from <internal:lib/rubygems/custom_require>:29:in `require'
       from /usr/bin/gem:8:in `<main>'

Found a fix for this at Ruby Forum Beware prelink and compiling ruby from source. The problem seems to be prelink corrupts ruby, so just need to ban prelink from touching the ruby executables and libraries. Need to ban /usr/bin/ruby in /etc/prelink.conf. by adding the line

-b /usr/bin/ruby

to the conf file. Hopefully someone else will find this in the search engines and not have to reinstall ruby too many times (but once it has occurred you will need to reinstall to fix the corruption).

The Economist Gets It Wrong Again

Posted by Pete McBreen 01 Apr 2011 at 20:25

Not sure what it is about the magazine, but it seem to be incapable of reporting the implications of actions. A stunning example of this comes from their Babbage Blog reporting on the delays in the acceptance of the reports that CO2 is warming the planet…

Erring on the side of extra caution is not a bad idea, and various efforts are underway to develop, corroborate and better to underpin the work on temperature records that has been done to date.

Erring on the side of extra caution for climate change would suggest that we take steps to reduce CO2 emissions, not that we do yet more studies on whether the planet is warming and how fast. We already have the warming data, and it does not look good. “One sure bet is that this decade will be the warmest” on record – James Hansen

Celebrating the day of fools...

Posted by Pete McBreen 31 Mar 2011 at 22:31

Why skepticism is just another cult

Some History Of Programming

Posted by Pete McBreen 12 Mar 2011 at 12:05

A fascinating one hour videos of a talk by Douglas Crockford on Open source Heresy. The talk includes some humor around the JDON license

The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.

Interesting to hear the idea that open source dates back to the very early days of Univac …

Celebrating 15 years of the Sokal expose...

Posted by Pete McBreen 04 Mar 2011 at 09:58

In the Spring of 1996 the Alan Sokal had his article Transgressing the Boundaries published in the Social Text journal. To coincide with the article’s publication, Sokal arranged for another article to be published A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is – second only to American political campaigns – the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. – Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

For some years I’ve been troubled by an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities. But I’m a mere physicist: if I find myself unable to make head or tail of jouissance and différance, perhaps that just reflects my own inadequacy.

So, to test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The overall result of the experiment was that the parody article was published as if it were a valid work of scholarship in the field.

Hoax or Expose?

Sometimes it is not enough to just question something, sometimes you have to go further. Yes, Sokal’s experiment is often labelled a hoax, but my take is that it was an expose of many things that are wrong with out current social and political discourse.

TL;DR Soundbites Are Going To Kill Us

Posted by Pete McBreen 02 Mar 2011 at 22:14

TL;DR If you let other people tell you what you should think, don’t be surprised if you end up doing things that are not in your own long term interest.

Niel Postman was right, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Soundbites cannot communicate nuances of ideas

For whatever reason, few people take the time to really find out what is going on in the world, being happy to be few a soundbite by a politicain or demagogue. Since I have the CO2 level shown in the sidebar, a good soundbite to use as an example is “CO2 is Plant Food”. Yes, CO2 is required by photosynthesis in plants, but the role of CO2 is much much more complicated than that.

Television and Radio news rely on soundbites, and as such are destroying public discourse about important matters that as a society we need to deal with. And yes, I know that TV and Radio news have some value, but that value needs to be considered in the light of what it also does to our understanding of science, technology, economics and the political choices facing us in the 21st Century.

When the Low Cost Supplier Stops Supplying

Posted by Pete McBreen 22 Feb 2011 at 18:59

A parallel to the outsourcing debacles is what is currently happening in the supply of Rare Earths (mainly the transition metals if you remember your periodic table). The rare earth metals are commonly used in high tech components, often for the super strong magnets, but also for lots of other electronic components.

China used to be such a low cost provider that it managed to capture most of the market, all of the other suppliers basically closing their mines. Now China, which produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earths, slashed its exports to a trickle to feed its growing domestic needs. The link goes to a feel good story about a mine that is trying to ramp up production quickly, but there is still a measure of reality in the storyline

“Bottom line, we fell asleep as a country and as an industry,” Smith said. “We got very used to these really low prices coming out of Asia and never really thought about it from a supply chain standpoint.”

In more and more areas we seem to be bumping up against problems when demand starts to exceed easily available supply. It is not that we are running out, it is just that demand is larger than expected so there is not the production capacity, so the price in the market becomes unstable, with large spikes and then resulting drops as some customers leave the market for alternatives.