We’re all adults here, but we’re not all mind readers

My favorite advice on the topic of method visibility (i.e. public vs. private) comes from Python creator Guido van Rossum. It goes something like “we’re all adults here” and says it’s not really a necessary thing for compilers/runtimes to hide methods from specific callers. Don’t go mucking around in other object’s implementations. I still think that’s mostly right.

Except, coming up to speed on a new code base is vastly easier when there’s some delineation of the waterline between an object’s public API which it expects other objects to use and its private implementation which it does not. It tells me a) the private methods are open for change and refactoring and b) below the private “waterline”, don’t bother going any deeper when spelunking to figure out how this program works.

In a new or strange codebase, every little bit of tractability helps.

Automotive enthusiasm and pragmatism

A few years ago, I was re-infected with enthusiasm for cars. I came upon One Car to Do It All and found a new reason to obsess over cars.

I read Car and Driver and Road and Track as a teenager. I was excited by the agency that cars bring (who isn’t?). It was a fun thing for me to nerd out about: technical specifications , comparing feature lists, and of course benchmarks! There was also a slight bit of romance to automotive journalism, ostensibly all writers traveling the country (or world) driving neat cars in beautiful places, often quite quickly.

Now, I’m taken by the history of specific manufacturers and how older models of cars became the current models. The technology and coordination needed to produce the modern car appeals to my technological side. The shape of cars new and old is a fun subjective conversation (e.g. are exterior about form or function?).

Most people do not view cars this way. They are automotive pragmatists. They want a car like they want a refrigerator or washing machine. The car is an appliance. It takes you from where you are to where you want to go without drama, in a modicum of comfort. The quality of the steering feedback, the particulars of the engine, or the predecessor of the car from two decades ago are nothing. The optimization is all around cost of ownership and utility.

(For the sake of symmetry I feel compelled to write another couple paragraphs on automotive pragmatism. But, there’s really nothing else to say. It’s pragmatic through and through.)

A curious thing happens when my car enthusiasm interacts with pragmatic car owners. Some of them will encourage me to talk about my enthusiasm. Mostly, it seems a little awkward, as though they’re afraid I somehow experience cars in a better way than they do. This is totally not the case, I can’t even really drive a stick!

In a way its not actually that curious. Car enthusiasm and the cars enthusiasts own correlate highly with elitism, which is by definition intimidating. But it does make me wish I had a shorthand for “I drive this car because its interesting to me, but I won’t judge your car, now tell me what you’re enthusiastic about that I don’t understand”.

Here comes GraphQL

GraphQL is gaining purchase outside of the JavaScript communities and this seems like a pretty good thing. Shopify and GitHub have jumped on board. Absinthe (Elixir) and graphql-ruby have caught my attention, though I haven’t had an opportunity to tinker with them yet.

That said, I like that GraphQL (and JSON API) let service developers focus on exposing a specific data model and optimizing access to it rather than taking a side quest through REST API design. For application developers, building screens and interactions with the data they need defined inline seems like a big win for contextual understanding.

As ever, the risk of using any kind of mapping layer, whether its objects and relational data or JSON object graphs to downstream service calls, is creating a naive, one to one mapping that create awkwardness and inefficiency.

Weaponized jerks

For a long time, the Central Intelligence Agency has had a guide to wrecking an organization by doing a few weird tricks at meetings. It recently came to light, and took hold as a meme, that this is the reality many people (non-spies) experience in their actual work life. Basically, some people work with weaponized jerks.

Which leads me to wonder, did the CIA invent these tactics, or did they discover them? Were they sitting around, talking about how big of a jerk John is at meetings and how he’s causing the Communists to win? And then they said to themselves, “hey, what if we had low-level agents just be like John?!”

And thus, the CIA made the world just a little bit less great.

Refactor the cow paths

Ron Jeffries, Refactoring — Not on the backlog!

Simples! We take the next feature that we are asked to build, and instead of detouring around all the weeds and bushes, we take the time to clear a path through some of them. Maybe we detour around others. We improve the code where we work, and ignore the code where we don't have to work. We get a nice clean path for some of our work. Odds are, we'll visit this place again: that's how software development works.

Check out his drawings, telling the story of a project evolving from a clear lawn to one overwhelmed with brush. Once your project is overwhelmed with code slowing you down, don’t burn it down. Jeffries says we should instead use whatever work is next to do enabling refactorings to make the project work happens. Since locality is such a strong force in software, it’s likely that refactoring will help the next bit of project work. Repeat several times and a new golden path emerges through your software.

In other words, don’t reach for a new master plan when the effort to change your software goes up. Pave the cow paths through whatever work you’re doing!

Losing the scent, acquiring the taste

When I didn’t drink coffee, the thing I enjoyed about coffee was the smell. It has a really great aroma. Unlike popcorn!

Now that I do drink coffee, I don’t notice the smell as much. I have to stop myself to take notice of it. That’s sort of a bummer.

I’m acclimated to coffee. I love drinking it, and tasting it. But, I wish I could drink coffee, regularly, and still smell it.

Getting around, together

Riding the Rails: Celebrating Trains and Subway Commuter Life:

Train time is essential time, and rail travel isn’t strictly pragmatic. For many, the commute is their only time to read, think, and zone out.

For a brief window of several months, ten years ago, I rode the Dallas light rail to work. It was exactly as quoted. It was when I read, when I reflected on the world or just the day gone past. I often miss it.

…as Jacquelin Cangro writes in The Subway Chronicles, the “New York Subway is a microcosm of world culture. The train is the great equalizer. When the doors close, all of us — black or white, Sephardic or Catholic, Chinese or Indian — are going together, and no one will arrive any faster or in better style.”

Even more, I wish everyone had to partake of public transit. We spend too much time in our bubbles. Our offices, homes, social networks, and cars isolate us from each other. Perhaps we wouldn’t find ourself in this strange election cycle if people from different backgrounds and circumstances had to spend twenty minutes with each other several days a week.

Taking polluting cars off the road, reshaping our communities, greater safety, it’s all secondary to me. Growing our empathy with one weird trick to see each other and relate is the outcome I find most intriguing to good public transit.

A bold, future-retro Audi dash

I’m officially intrigued by the Audi TT and R8 going with no center display. The look is retro and functional. Will it annoy passengers, or do passengers who want to change the radio or see the map even matter in those cars? Worth noting that the 2016 A4 has the same display for the instrument cluster and a giant center display.

2015 Audi TTS

2015 Audi TTS

Another cool design detail: the A/C controls are on the center of the eyeball vents. Pretty cool!

Our current political Trolley Problem

As self-driving cars inch closer to a daily reality, the Trolley Problem seems to have entered our lexicon. In short, should a self-driving computer choose to avoid hitting a bunch of people and kill its single occupant as a result? Turns out people expect the car to protect the greater good second and their own skin first.

Maybe out our current political environment of unfettered gun violence, climate change, Trump-lead racism, Brexit-fueled xenophobia, and general apprehension about losing what we thought we’d earned are a kind of longer-term but still serious Trolley Problem. Would you vote to improve society at large even if it meant taking yourself down a ego/prestige/money notch?

Well when I put it that way, things seem pretty bleak!

I happened across an Alan Kay essay, Enlightened Imagination for Citizens, and it kinda helped me get through that bleakness. Some highlights:

In a raging flood, a man risks his life to save a swept away child, but two years earlier he voted against strengthening the levee whose breaching caused the flood. During an epidemic people work tirelessly to help the stricken, but ignored elementary sanitation processes that could have prevented the outbreak. More astoundingly, as many as 200,000 Americans die each year from diseases spread by their own doctors who have been ignoring elementary sanitation (including simply washing their hands when needed), but who then work diligently to try to save the patients they have infected. Studies show that about 80% of Americans are “highly concerned” about climate change, yet this percentage drops to less than 20% when the issue is combined with what it will cost to actually deal with these changes.

Regarding our inability to reason about dynamic systems:

One of the reasons the consequences were not imagined is that our human commonsense tends to think of “stability” as something static, whereas in systems it is a dynamic process that can be fragile to modest changes. One way to imagine “stability” is to take a bottle and turn it upside down. If it is gently poked, it will return to its “stable position”. But a slightly more forceful poke will topple it. It is still a system, but has moved into a new dynamic stability, one which will take much more work to restore than required to topple it.

On acting now instead of acquiring a perfect answer or solution:

When the costs of an imperfectly understood event are high or essentially irreversible, measures have to be taken even when perfect proofs are lacking. This idea is understood by most developed societies—and carried out in the form of levees and pumps, food and water stocks, etc.—but is nonetheless resisted by many of the voting public.

Perhaps the solution is to get ourselves representatives that excel at reasoning and legislation instead of politics and fundraising?

One of the reasons we are a republic with a democratic base is that the representatives can be selected to be “the best and the brightest” from the population as a whole (this was another early ideal for the great American experiment). We could argue that the current representatives are “all too representative”, but this is part of a slide in our political and social systems that needs to be shored up and improved. The idea of “national service” is now just a whisper, but it is what needs to be brought back into the forefront of what it means to be a citizen.

A few qualities of mature developers

What is technical leadership? Per Mature Developers, it’s a lot of things. My favorites:

So one of the first and most important qualities of mature developers is they’re more often than not paying attention to what is going on around them. They’re deliberately taking their time to observe before proceeding (put succinctly as STOP; Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed).

It is so hard for me to do the stop and breath part.

Sharing the [technical] vision with other involved parties not only serves as a perfect opportunity for practicing one’s skills to explain deeply technical terms and circumstances with non-technical people. It also serves the purpose to validate the vision in terms of relevance to business value and other aspects.

Assessing and understanding risks better puts them into a position where it’s also more likely they’ll actually take risks. Risks which, without the knowledge about business value and the bigger context, may look too big to be worthwhile. But not for mature developers who are able to see beyond the obvious risks and include more aspects into their judgement.

Managing risk, but not overmanaging it: also very difficult.

Previously: Thoughts on “Being a Senior Engineer”.