Born Sleepy

March 18, 2011

As a computer programmer, science fiction fan, card carrying geek, you might be forgiven for assuming that I’d be in favour of nuclear power. It’s shiny, sexy, the future. It’s the appliance of science. What’s not to like?

In fact, the opposite is true - for as long as I can remember, I’ve been against it.

Perhaps this is just due to my inherent pessimism, but I’d like to think that it’s an intelligent response to the balance of risks and benefits. One thing I can definitely say is that it’s an opinion heavily influenced by my experience as a computer programmer.

Writing software is a strange hybrid of art, craft, science, but it most definitely involves engineering. When you make software, you’re effectively building very complex machines, albeit ones without much in the way of physical manifestation.

Like any engineering discipline, you have to make hundreds of decisions based on what you want to happen, think will happen, fear might happen, definitely want to avoid happening. You typically have a plan, and a way to put it into action, but you also know that your assumptions might be wrong. You have to design for situations where some data is missing, or too big, or the wrong format. You have to cope with the computer running out of space, or going to sleep, or randomly being reset half way through the program’s execution.

How well you do this ultimately determines how solid your software is. There are other factors that also influence whether it’s good software, but it definitely won’t be good if it isn’t solid.

What programming teaches you is that reliable engineering is very hard to achieve. No matter how good you are, and how sensible your methodologies may be, you are endlessly reminded of how bad you are at correctly guessing exactly what is going to happen. Programs go wrong - all the time. Testing is a major part of the process, and testing is always breaking things. More to the point, things that have been exhaustively tested are always breaking as soon as they get out of the test lab and into the real world.

Programmers are endlessly claiming to have it all sorted out and to know that their code definitely works (the smart ones claim it to themselves, quietly, but they still do it). They are endlessly proven wrong. I’m not talking about stupid people here. I’m talking about mostly young, mostly male, often very smart people. Admittedly people who sometimes find personal hygiene and interpersonal communication skills a bit of a challenge, but seriously, scarily clever people - smart enough to be rocket scientists, or… nuclear engineers…

The scary thing is how many of these very clever programmers are possessed with an abundance of testosterone and hubris, and a distinct lack of humility and perspective. Again and again they tend to say things like “that can never happen”, “we thought of all the possibilities”, “we’ve tested it extensively”.

If you’re smart, you learn not to think like this after a while. You also learn to be very, very sceptical when you come across people who do. Luckily, most of these people write word processors and computer games. Admittedly, some of them write software for nuclear power stations, which ought to give us pause for thought. Even they aren’t the ones I’m really worried about though. Software is a lot easier to test than hardware, but the same mindset is prevalent in both. The people I’m really scared about are the ones who are making the hardware…


January 11, 2011

I’ve been enjoying reading Kevin MacNeil’s “The Stornoway Way”. It’s a funny book, and one thing that’s been amusing me is the regular disparaging references to “The English”.

To “The Scots”, of course, “The English” are the cause of all that’s wrong with the world. I recognise the sentiment. Strangely, as soon as you step over the border, the target becomes Southern Ponces. Approach Watford, and Southerners become Londoner Wankers. Enter London, pause for a while for a slight detour as you debate the relative merits of North vs South, or East vs West, and you’ll eventually settle on a target of Rich Buggers, or perhaps Posh Twats. Which is fair enough of course - those bastards really are to blame for everything.

Though I was born and raised in London, and will soon be a permanent resident of Stornoway, you’d be more likely to hit me if you aimed your ire at “fecking computer programmers”, or maybe “beardy blokes who like rock music”.

English, I am. The English? Away wi ye! I’ll no be tarred wi that particular brush…


December 16, 2010

As I’m now selling software from my website, and as I’m also planning to relocate to Stornoway in the next few months, I decided that it was time that I moved it off the trusty Mac Mini that sits under my desk here, and back onto some sort of remotely hosted service.

After taking advice from a number of people I went for Linode, which comes highly recommended*.

So far the transition has been fairly painless, and the linode service seems very easy to set up. Migrating my server contents is not trivial as I have multiple virtual hosts with a variety of configurations, but hopefully I’ve got it pretty much done now, and the DNS records should be updating as we speak to point to the new server.

If you notice any broken links on the site in the next few days, please let me know, since I have taken the opportunity to move one or two things around and I’m almost certain to have missed an update somewhere…

  • disclaimer: that link is a referral link - if you sign up to Linode with it, I get a bit of cash off my bill. Go on, you know you want to…

November 18, 2010

I’ve been paying for Spotify for quite a while now.

I probably use it enough for the payment to be worth it, and it also allows me to use it on my iPhone and iPad, both of which can be useful.

However I also chose to pay for it because I wanted to play a small part in helping Spotify to send a message to the music industry - namely that a micro-payment or subscription style financial model can work and will earn them money.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to wonder whether Spotify are making any headway with that particular debate.

I’ve always put up with the fact that a lot of the more obscure acts that I like are missing from their catalogue - for example everything by King Crimson. I think that the artists that ban their content from Spotify are fundamentally misguided, especially those who do so in the belief that it will direct people to their own websites or streaming solutions. The main effect it’s had on me is that I simply listen to less of their music, and instead listen to new acts that I’ve discovered on something like LastFM and then found to be available on Spotify.

Recently though, some music that I’d found this way has been removed. Not having access to some rock monster like Led Zeppelin is one thing, but when new and relatively obscure music (e.g the excellent Gavin Harrison and 05ric album, which I’d been enjoying listening to), suddenly disappears, I do have to start questioning whether I want to continue paying for this service.

The 2004 album Marbles by Marillion has also gone, as has music by Sidsel Endresen and Elvind Aarset. These artists aren’t exactly household names in the UK, and one has to wonder what is going through the minds of the people making the decision to remove them. It’s quite possible that they weren’t supposed to be available in the first place, but frankly I don’t care - I just see music that I liked vanishing from what was a good service, reducing it’s value in my eyes.

Very frustrating! I’m tempted to look for an alternative service, but I can’t help feeling that it’s probably the music publishers that are the problem, and so I may have the same experience elsewhere.


October 08, 2010

I’ve decided to split off my personal pages and blog from the main Elegant Chaos, and move them to this site instead.

For now this new site is a clone of the old one, but they will gradually diverge. I want to simplify the main Elegant Chaos website and remove some of the more personal stuff from it so that it’s a little less confusing for people who arrive at the site simply wanting to know about Elegant Chaos and the software we sell.

If you have an RSS/Atom subscription to my blog (or the whole of the Elegant Chaos site), you might want to update it to point here instead.

For the sake of history, and to preserve old links, I will continue to host all previous posts on both sites, but as time goes on I will set up some permanent (http 301) redirections to try to teach the search engines etc where the definitive copy now lives.