A Smile Posting!

Okay, so it’s apparently been forever since I talked here about Smile.  Which is sad, because I think hard about it every day, and I work on its code multiple times a week.

So here goes with a big status update.

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UI Tip: The User Is Busy

I’m passionate about user-interfaces. And so I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on a UI discussion I was in on Slack today.

You should never call a user dumb. I prefer to use the phrase busy, one of the great suggestions from Al Cooper’s About Face. I prefer that phrase because nearly all users are not dumb: The bell curve and a whole heap of population statistics say otherwise.

The real issue is that most users are just too busy and too harried to really think about your software or to spend any time with it or to spend any time learning it. They only use it because they have to use it, most likely because some manager at their company bought it and said, “This is your new [X] now.”

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Windows 10

Microsoft really screwed the pooch with Windows 10.

Over the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to both install 10 and use it on quite a lot of machines.  It’s better than Windows 8, but that’s a lot like saying two broken legs are better than cancer:  You really wish there was another option.

So, look, lest you all think I’m just a hater, I have intentionally upgraded my devices to Windows 10, and stuck with it for long enough to get a real feel for it.  I want to be using the new operating system.  It’s just simply not ready for prime time.

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Server Crash

So my site’s been down for a couple of weeks, because we had a server crash.  By which I mean, “The server physically crashed onto the floor from a height of about six feet.”

I’m now hosting off of a VPS at Dreamhost, who presumably are less droppy with their servers 🙂

I’ll post more real content later, but my site’s back up, more-or-less.  Some of the deeper links probably don’t work anymore (I’m not restoring all of the junk I used to have in weird off-directories), but the blog’s still here, for whatever that’s worth.  Which is likely not a lot, since there’s nobody reading, but still, we’re back.

And so December

Well, merry Christmas all.  I’m spending mine with broken bones in my right hand, and a cast on it.  I’ll type more in the new year about what I’ve been doing — after the requisite physical therapy. Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you all in 2016!

How to Pass an Interview with Me

I do a lot of interviews. I mean, seriously, a lot of interviews. One a day is getting to be pretty normal.

I’ve read before Jeff Atwood’s classic “The Non-Programming Programmer,” and it’s still disturbingly valid, half a decade later: A very large percentage of the phone screens and in-person interviews I do are dismal, epic failures: The person can’t code, and, more significantly, doesn’t realize how poor their coding skills are.

Our dev shop is populated by really capable people. We get stuff done. Our flagship product has two and a half million lines of code in it — and growing — and there are a raft of satellite products orbiting not far from its gravitational well. And it’s not large because it’s wasteful; it’s large because that’s the smallest we could make it and still do what it needs to do.

And what that means is that if you want to join our staff, you have to know what you’re doing. We don’t have time to hand-hold. You need to be able to make stuff on your own. If you can’t deal with a business person giving you some abstract requirements and saying, “I need this in a month,” you’re not going to last. (Yes, we’re Agile, and we do plan better than that quote might imply, but a lot of stuff really boils down to, “Here’s a rough idea, go build it.”)

When you bomb out of our interviews, you’re actually doing yourself a favor. I know it seems like we’re being mean, but I swear we aren’t. In our initial interviews with you, we give you programming problems. Easy problems. These are all things that should have been homework in your Freshman or Sophomore year of college.

And any one of our current employees can do these problems in about five minutes. Literally. We’ve had phone screens that ran 15 minutes total. The reason we give these easy problems is because the real work is way harder. You’re never going to last in a two-million-line codebase full of graph algorithms and complex data structures if you can’t count letters in a string. We know this because we used to have weaker interviews, and people bombed out hard during the first month of employment afterward.

So here’s the deal. If you want to work for us, here are the critical parts:

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MayJuneJuly

The latest: We’re expecting! The due date is the middle of February. First ultrasound looks good. Robin’s pretty sick a lot of the time, but there’s only a month left in the first trimester, and we’re hoping the nausea settles down after the first trimester like it did with Alan. She’s a lot sicker this time, and thinks that maybe that means we have a girl. Hard to say, but we’ll find out!

Alan keeps growing. He’s at the just-shy-of-terrible-twos now and exerting his independence by means of tantrum. (Lord help you if you want to change his diaper, or if you leave the room without his permission.) We took him to the zoo for the first time last weekend, and he was far more interested in the carousel than the animals. Ah, well. He recently learned that he can stack his alphabet blocks into towers, which has been highly entertaining to watch. Still no speech yet except for going “nyaah” when he sees a cat (it’s his “meow”), but with any luck, he’ll at least figure out “Mommy” and “Daddy” soon. He certainly knows what we’re saying, and nods (and waves his arms) and shakes his head (and waves his arms) to indicate “yes” and “no.”

What’s new in Smile-land? Back in April, I started rewriting the interpreter in C. It was never going to be fast enough in C#, and I always knew a C or C++ port would be necessary. I rejected C++ after a few attempts (more thoughts on that below). So far — well, I have a garbage collector and a working String object and a bunch of unit tests and that’s about it for the last three months. I only get an hour here or there at best to work on it. But Ben recently challenged me to have a minimally-usable interpreter by Christmas, and that’s put a little more fire under my butt to do something about it.

On C++

I rejected C++ because C++ is C++.

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Well, that was fast

Blink

You blink, and six months go by. That’s what having kids is like, apparently. I could swear we were just gearing up for Thanksgiving, and now it’s spring and the daffodils are springing up. I just realized how long it’s been since I’ve even seen some of my closest friends. I used to joke about asking “What year is it?” And now, well, that question is starting to seem more legitimate every day.

But haven’t got a lot of news, really. Lots of time spent at work, and a business trip to California. Saw my sister and brother-in-law out there, and their little girl. Worked on the house a bit during the cold months: We have a proper ladder to the garage attic now, and the garage is not exactly clean but cleaner than it used to be. Spent some of the time going to doctors for my injured foot. And Alan’s growing fast; he’s at nearly 18 months now and running around like a lunatic. Kid’s cute as a button, and my wife and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Got a little bit of work done on SpaceMonger’s scanner, but nothing really notable. I’d like to get the core scanner 64-bit compatible and change how it shares data between threads; that’ll improve both performance and stability, and early experiments with it have been promising, but again, time just slips away from me.

Smile

I’ve made a handful of commits to the Smile interpreter. It consumes a lot of my driving-to-work and standing-in-the-shower brain cells. The interpreter is slow as heck (s’what I get for writing it in C#), but the performance can be fixed over time (or a better interpreter can be written). More importantly, it works, and is really quite unlike any programming language I’ve ever used, and I’ve used quite a lot of them. Smile reads simply, a little like a mash between BASIC and JavaScript and Ruby, but it’s actually Lisp and Smalltalk under the hood: Stupid-crazy powerful. I can do things in one line of code in it that would have required large whole programs in C. I don’t have macros or continuations yet (and you have no idea how much I want both of those), but I still can’t get over the fact that it works. This bizarre idea I had fifteen years ago that you could add an object-oriented syntax translation layer on top of Lisp to de-Lisp-ify it actually works, and not only looks good but feels good.

I own smile-lang.org, and I’ve been thinking about possibly publishing the interpreter there for download. I have some (hidden) documentation there right now. I want the interpreter to be open-source — I’ll probably host it on Github, and the source is under an Apache license — but I’m still nervous about sharing a work-in-progress. Things still change in it as I work on it, and as we found the other day, some programs from last year wouldn’t work under the latest interpreter. Many would, but a few were quite busted.

It’s a tough question for me: Share it, and let people complain that stuff is incomplete and some stuff doesn’t work; or keep it private until it’s more polished?

So I’m opening up comments on this posting, because after a year of working on Smile, I really can’t decide about sharing it. If you have a thought over the next month or so, feel free to write a comment, as long as it’s constructive. If the crowd leans toward sharing, I’ll do that; and if not, well, I’ll keep muddling along as I have been until the code’s pretty solid in, say, 2017.

Anyway, that’s that. It’s late, and I’m tired. And yes, 9:30 PM is apparently now late. You see what having kids does to you?

When you’re Smiling

Every once in a while, I go back and reread the Reddit thread where they were first talking about Smile. Each time I read it, it’s a reminder of what I’m up against. There are a lot of interesting notions about what’s good in a programming language; everybody has their own pet feature: It has to be as fast as C! It has to allow infinite threads! It has to be 100% type-safe! It has to be type-inferring! It has to be designed for building web services! Did you see how X implemented generics!? And you’d better not leave out Intellisense!!!

It reminds me of back in the ’90s when I worked with this lady who was convinced that client-server would take over the world — by which she meant custom apps running on PCs talking to mainframes. Our worldviews and past experiences skew our expectations toward what we want, and the future often doesn’t play out the way we hope or expect.

(This is gonna be a long post, and I’m going to talk a lot about Smile, including some philosophy and history, a deep-dive into the core syntax, and a bunch of additional examples at the end. I feel like writing a bit on one of my favorite topics. Don’t feel obligated to read the whole thing.)

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ASP.NET WebForms Without The Suck

Time to Ruffle Some Feathers

ASP.NET MVC gets all the notoriety these days in the Microsoft web-programming world. ASP.NET WebForms is kind of the ugly stepchild, sitting in the back corner, mostly neglected. “Did you see WebForms last week? He was awful, just awful,” say the voices at the party. “But MVC! MVC is sooo elegant. And so smart! Did you hear she was given early admission at Dartmouth?”

Now, I’ve been coding for thirty years, and I’ve seen a lot of technologies, languages, and environments come and go. And Microsoft is a major, major offender in this category: They have a tendency of building these big, awful, overarching frameworks that make the U.S. Federal Government look under-managed, and then they drop them as soon as the Next Big Thing comes along. MFC was a horrendous mishmash of bad ideas that all managed to somehow end up in one ball of code. COM was a fever-driven acid nightmare that the computer industry has thankfully mostly wakened from. And VB — do I really even need to explain why VB is bad?

Which brings us to ASP.NET. Now I know that the original goal with it was to bring the VB WinForms programmers to the web and get them the heck off of the junky VB/C++/COM conglomerations that were killing Microsoft’s own abilities to fix issues in Windows itself. To that end, they came up with some clever abstractions that made the web sort-of vaguely smell like Windows programming for programmers who weren’t really clever enough or willing enough to get with the future.

And if you were offended by that last sentence, then you can stop reading right now, because this article is not for you.

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