30 November 2008

Monteverdi and me and tonight

I am in total awe, almost to the point of being at a loss for words. Although, as most of you know I'm never really at a loss for words, so indeed there is something I need to say.

I love Monteverdi. But of course, you knew that, no surprises there. But I was surprised a few weeks back while reading the newspaper; Terje Kvam and the Oslo Domkor (choir of Oslo main cathedral) was going to perform Monteverdi's Marian Vespers (of 1610 fame) tonight! And of course I went; I've been waiting for this moment my whole adult life, for something as momentous as this happening up here in the cold north.

First, let me explain just how crazy this is. The Vespers is a collection of music which is regarded some of the most challenging and beautiful music, for many the defining piece of work to separate mouse from men. It's an amazing piece, it's rather out of the common practice of its time, revolution and tradition all mixed up in a magnificent duality of old and new. Monteverdi who was just starting out in writing opera (and being damn successful at it with one of the first operas "L'Arianna" he wrote for the Gonzagas and performed in 1607), but he wasn't happy with his current boss. He probably thought that writing a piece of music that shakes some booty could be a good way to attract different employer (and he even dedicated it to the pope, probably kissing some Roman butt), and so he did. In 1610 it was published, and the world became richer.

So, anyway, here Terje Kvam decides to tackle this amazing work. You would think this could go so-so, but if you read between the lines you see names such as Rolf Lislevand (superstar lutenist of Jordi Savall coop fame), impressive tenors Joshua Ellicott and Johan Linderoth (these guys *got* Monteverdi, and more or less made this concert what it was), Njål Sparbo (always lovely to hear his bass) and assorted people from Norsk Barokkorkester and of course the Oslo Domkor itself which always has one of the nicest tones around. (My best friend Magnus' mum sings in the choir, and this night was her last concert with them after 18 years in it)

Here's my poor-quality camera-phone shot of the intro ;

This was an amazing concert, on a high international level. I've heard the vespers more than any other piece of work, I've got all available recordings of it (including a few that should have been burned and forgotten ever happened!), I know the music and lyrics off by heart ... and this concert blew me away! I was sitting there crying it was so good! The tone of this choir is amazing, and the soloists were fantastic, every single one of them (and especially the tenors; amazingly good!) , the band in fantastic form with the amazing Rolf Lislevand upfront.

Now, it's not too late to see this for yourself. Tomorrow (sunday, 30th of November, 2008 at the Trefoldighetskirken next to Deichman main library down town) they're doing it again. I know Magnus is going to be there, and if I get tickets (and permission from my wallet) I'll be there again. It's the one concert I would never want to end. If you're in Oslo, like this kind of music and want a kick-ass version of a piece of music that was written to kick-ass, you know what to do. I dare you!

10 November 2008

Bad start of the week, thanks to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas

I woke up I a crappy mood this morning. Sure, it was pouring outside, and the family is under a coughing/drooling/snot/sleepless spell these days, but the main reason I feel like this is because last night me and the wife watched "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Spoilers galore warning.

What dreck! I've been thinking about it since last night, and this is just not only a bad Indiana Jones movie, but a bad movie, period! Here you've got a kick-ass cast, killer director and otherwise good filmmakers, and somehow they end up raping the good name of Indiana Jones, piss in the well of good films, break rules of good taste, and generally make me lose respect for people I normally love.

Let's start at the beginning, before the movie was even made. They announced it as "back to basics" and "that good ol' Indy feeling", pulled in a stellar cast including my all-time male favorite British actor John Hurt, and all-time female favorite actress Karen Allen (since Starman, co-starring with my all-time favorite male American actor Jeff Bridges), Aussie vixen and all-round amazing seductress Cate Blanchett, Steven Spielberg to direct, Lucas to produce. This just couldn't fail, I thought.

Ok, so "that good ol' Indy feeling" has a few guidelines;
  • Introductory segment before film proper
  • Slightly exadurated fight scenes
  • Good dialog
  • Not stupid
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Adventure for a cause, not for magic
  • On the edge believable story-line based on real myths
The introduction here is gone, and we leap straight the film, and it follows that story throughout the whole movie. Where's our gentle, humourus and interesting entree?

Then we get lots of fight and chase scenes that are just plain dumb, that adds nothing to the story and could well have been left on the cutting room floor. The fighting itself is mostly of the comic kind, like fighting with swords with your legs split between two cars driving and having bushes and vegetaion slap your jewels at high speed. Yeah, that kind. And then there's the guy who gets eaten alive my big ants and dragged down their lair, which looks cool but is so far fetched from reality it looks stupid in an Indy movie. Yeah, that kind.

The dialog is haphazard, almost as if the actors haven't seen eachother for 20 years and are trying to find out how to communicate again. It's as if the script thought that talking and interaction was boring, and can we get to the cool CGI effects and chase scenes, eh? And some of those interactions are just plain unbelievable, such as when Indy sees Marion again for the first time in many, many years. Even the lead up to that moment was stupid (Shia LeBeuf saying his mums name is Marion didn't ring any bells? How many women in your life is called Marion? Pathetic), and you're also telling me that two people who love eachother, even with a rocky past, don't at least stay in contact? And especially she who knows her son is Indy's son? Give me a friggin' break. And what about Shia's introduction? He just walzes in, talks about some old former friend, and basically sets up the whole adventure which Indy swallows without a thought, and Voila! they're on a plane to Peru in search of ... uh, whatever. Where's character development, or, you know, characters that at least have some base in reality? Not here.

Next up; the movie shouldn't be stupid. But it does get stupid. No, not your average "balancing on the suspension of disbelief" cliff, but jumping right off it with a clowns nose and big shoes on playing the trumpet while plummeting. So, what's so stupid? Well, aliens, to begin with. And the Ox being posessed by an alien being from having looked at a crystal skull for too long. Or Indy being half-possesed by being forced to look at said skull. Or the main baddy having some mind-reading skills. or the main baddy having a rapier fetish she brings with her in a suit-case on crazy adventures and missions. Or Indy's frind Mac who betrays them, what, three or four times? I lost count, but how stupid can you be after the first betrayel? Indy movies have as little magic in the as possible, while this one pours it on and makes it the driving force of the movie. Unbelievable.

In one scene Indy proclaims that only he should return the skull, going into a cave, not because of some greater good but because the skull told him to. And yet they all go in. And Indy doesn't belive in magic, only causes. And yet they go in. For what reason? To return something, when Indy clearly wants these things in museums and collections for study purposes? Brrr.

The story is just plain bad! I saw the "making of" on the DVD where Spielberg talked a bit about how Lucas tried to put aliens in there, going back and forth. Spielberg rightly said it was a bad idea, but Lucas was persistent and they ended up with "transdimensional beings" ... *rolling eyes* For fraggs sake, how stupid can you get? I can only assume that Lucas has been listening too much to lunatic vonDänicken and thought it clever to put the crystal skulls and the Mayan / Incas / Indian myths together in a hotch-potch story, but trust me, Lucas should not go anywhere near aliens ever again. Not only that, but the alien looks just like the ones from Close Encounter of the Third Kind? And the story is resolved by the alien(s) leaving in their flying saucer, removing all evidence, as opposed to the site being covered by agents, or some government conspiracy, or whatever? A self-ersolving theme? What the heck is going on here?

There were so many details that irritated me throughout this flick I don't even know where to start. Using a snake to pull Indy out of a sinkhole? Marion saying "trust me" instead of Indy? The alien(s) is evil? And archeologist? The skulls are magnetic, yet made of crystal? LeBeuf put his shiny motorcycle in an unprotected marketplace, and it's still there when he gets back? There's ninja-like Indians at the cemetary? Who don't follow them into the crypt because Indy's got a gun? A russian female commander / scientist / phsycic with a rapier fetish? They made Cate Blanchett look ugly?!?! Indy gets fired because FBI raided his office? (One would think that would be a common practice around Indy by now) He once was involved in an alien rescue mission without knowing they were aliens? He survives a nuclear blast from hiding in a fridge, which gets slung far, far away with great force, and he exits alive? Shia can do the Tarzan trick, jumping from liane to liane faster than two military cars? And those two cars racing along a shere cliff? (I sometimes have to remind myself that these cars actually have breaks ...) And on and on, lots of stupid little things.

I didn't have too big expectations for this flick, but one would think that people of this caliber could pull it off reasonably well. The IMDB ratings give it (right now) 7 out of 10. I will never trust the IMDB ratings again. I give it 3 out of 10. So, what's the 3 for?

Good effects (which is ironic, given the promise before filming that CGI was to be minimal if any, and ended up as 30% of the movie!), beautiful scenery and great cinematography. It looks really good. But Indy is more than that, and I was very disapointed.

Good to get that out of my system. Now back to work.

31 October 2008

An amazing and beautiful digi-analog kick-ass clock

I stumbled upon this $1.8 million mechanical clock featuring a massive time-eating grasshopper made its debut at the University of Cambridge Friday, and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking was on site to introduce the strange and provocative timepiece. I can't even remember what I was searching for, but it's one of those great moments of flying half-blind through the intertubes.Oh, and this is my first Digg post as well. I mean to blog a lot more stuff I find interesting, but never take the hassle to log into Blogger. This will make it easier, so ... uh, I'll see you again soon then?

read more | digg story

20 October 2008

I went to TMRA 2008, and all I got was the best days of my life ...

Update: I've added an embedded version of the slides at the bottom of the post; my cool animations and lots of fonts are wrong, but hey, you can read it at least. :)

Not to put too much sugar in your otherwise fine brew of tea, but being at TMRA 2008 this year was one of the most fantastic experiences I've had so far. Not only did I catch up with some old friends, I met some new ones I know I'll stay in touch with. So much smart and easy-going folks gathered in one place ... I'm surprised it didn't disintegrate in a puff of logic as that there really must be some cosmic law against it. Although, I see the TED conferences still churning out good stuff, so it must be allowed. And yes, I do equate TMRA with TED; it was that great.

This year I was invited to hold the opening keynote speach, which I called "You're all crazy - subjectivelly speaking", a romp on the Topic Maps community, a plea to remember epistemology in all things data modeling, and the message that being "subject-centric" is not a technical feat; it's about social processes and agreement (or, at least, rough understanding of eachother).

I used a few cheap interactive ploys to hold the audiences attention, with making them audibly disagree or agree with certain assertions I made up on the screen. It was very effectice as raising the collective awareness to the issues I was trying to point out, and especially helpful when I needed to point out that there are some things we all disagree with. And not only that, but things we should disagree with.I think people in general thought it was a good speach, and the feedback was great, so thanks to all for that.

I'd like to thank Lars Marius Garshol and Lutz Maicher for inviting and encouraging me, Patrick Durusau, Jack Park (you need a website or blog, mate!) and Robert Barta for just being who you are, and every one else for making me once again believe so strongly that the Topic Maps community is the best thing since recursive properties and frames theory!

I'm sure I'll write more on what went down at TMRA 2008, but right now I need to make porridge for my kids. Later.

10 October 2008

Keynote speaking at TMRA 2008

Oops, I totally forgot to mention to the world that I'm the intro keynote speaker at the TMRA 2008 conference (one of two yearly Topic Maps conferences each year) in Leipzig next week (15-17 October). My talk is titled "We're all crazy - subjectively speaking" and will contain at least one bad joke, two pretty good ones, some philosophical ranting and hopefully lots of community building. I really, really hope to see you there; find me, say hello, let's have tea and discuss whether my two jokes really were good or not.

The big question is, how did I forget to tell you about this? I'll let you know that in a few days time or so.

25 September 2008

MARCXML : Beast of burden

Lately I've been talking with librarians again. I left their den about 8 months ago and went a bit cool after that, needing some fresh air and to distance myself a bit from everything in that world. But, as I said, I've been lured back again by my own stupid notion to save humanity from itself through the channels the library world offers.

As much as I'm a fanboy of the library world, I'm also quite critical to library world thinking, the collective direction its heading and the way they del with probably their biggest challenge ever; their own survival when the book turns digital.

Today I'll rant a bit about a piece of technology that often is hailed as being the library worlds ticket into the modern techie world, a piece of the future solution, albeit with a few minor worts that could be sorted out. I don't agree; I think MARCXML is the plague, and I'm here to tell you why. First, here's how Library of Congress describes it;
framework for working with MARC data in a XML environment
First of all; framework? Framework suggests something more than a mere format, and yes, there's an XSLT sheet or two there that could convert MARCXML to HTML or somesuch. That's not a framework, that's a format with a few conversion scripts. Framework suggests tools I can use to get some juice, which is nowhere in sight.

Anyway, let's move on to the 8 main design goals or considerations, with my comments;

1. Simple and Flexible MARC XML Schema

The core of the MARC XML framework is a simple XML schema which contains MARC data. This base schema output can be used where full MARC records are needed or act as a "bus" to enable MARC data records to go through further transformations such as toDublin Core and/or processes such as validation. The MARC XML schema will not need to be edited to reflect minor changes to MARC21. The schema retains the semantics of MARC.

All control fields, including the leader are treated as a data string. Fields are treated as elements with the tag as an attribute and indicators treated as attributes. Subfields are treated as subelements with the subfield code as an attribute.
Oh, it's simple alright, in the same sense that a frog that sits in a pot of cold water that's slowly getting hotter to the boiling-point won't hop out to save himself, attributed to very simple neuron- and nerve-control over time (meaning, they're great at short-time tasks, but sucks if the time stretches out a bit). We're talking about mechanisms that are so simple you wonder how they didn't get outed in the evolution of things.

Let's start with "All control fields, including the leader are treated as a data string." Here's a quick example;
<leader>01142cam  2200301 a 4500</leader>
<controlfield tag="001"> 92005291 </controlfield>
<controlfield tag="003">DLC</controlfield>
<controlfield tag="005">19930521155141.9</controlfield>
<controlfield tag="008">920219s1993 caua j 000 0 eng </controlfield>
Not sure you can see it straight away, but they've here got reliance on whitespace being preserved in a format that had as a goal to get rid of reliance on whitespace. How's that for a good start? I'm not sure how many times this has bit me, as pretty much any and all XML tools out there will be whitespace-agnostic by default (meaning, they'll often reduce it). In order to use MARCXML properly you have to change the whitespace options in pretty much all your tools, if they allow you to.

Next up, if you go to lengths to create an XML schema you should already be aware that semantic meta data becomes part of your names and fields (and I'll get back to this point a lot, really). Sure it's a quick and dirty way to get your XML chops started, but is it wise to do this?
<datafield tag="245" ind1="1" ind2="0">
<subfield code="a">Arithmetic /</subfield>
I'll translate what this does for you;
The MARC tag 245 means "title statement", and the code "a" means, uh, title. This perticular madness comes from the culture of MARC itself which I'll rant about some other time (and have in the past), so I'll try to stick to the pure XML part of it ;

What were you thinking? That 245 is easier to remember than "title"? Hardly. Perhaps the international side is more convincing, that 245 is easier to remember for those who wants a title in Norwegian ("tittel")? I seriously can't think of any other format that does it this way, and it doesn't seem to have stopped the success of other formats in the world. No, this particular thing has all to do with the fact that MARCXML isn't as much XML as it is MARC; it's really MARC with a bad hairdo, showing a thinking that as long as we can just claim it has some affiliation with XML then we're hip and cool and we're drinking the new techie XML kool-aid.

And this is the by far biggest problem with MARCXML; it thinks it is XML, but it really isn't, which leads to all sorts of unfortunate situations, like ;
  • Librarians are fooled into thinking their meta data is ready for an increasingly XMLish world
  • Librarians think they can throw XML tools and programmers at it with ease
  • Librarians think they get all the XML goodies and benefits
Let's run through these;

Librarians are fooled into thinking their meta data is ready for an increasingly XMLish world

There's not much these days that hasn't got some anchoring in XML technology. I don't need to go into details to all the XML technology used to even write and publish this little blog post. But when your MARCXML isn't real XML, all the XML technology in the world is rendered useless for you.

Let me try to clarify this as simply as I can, through the use of XPath (an XML query language used pretty much anywhere there is XML technology). Here's what I would write if the XML is real;
And here is what I have to do with MARCXML;
It really isn't optimized for computerized fetching or indexing, and what's more important is this; Notice the tree-structure of the former example, and the lack of obvious structure in the latter. Let's talk about structure, because, frankly, if you aren't then you shouldn't use XML.

We humans have a good sense of structure. Our brains are great at categorization, we do it all the time, break things into category prototypes and derivatives to gather some kind of meaning. A tree-structure is the closest and easiest structure that binds humans and computers together, in the sense that trees are easy for a computer to work with, and easy for a human to understand. (We humans have a natural knack for prototypes and graphs [not the presentation slide kind] that I've talked about earlier, which we shouldn't misinterpret here)

With these faux but useful tree-structures comes mediation between man and computer, a way to advance us further. Take note, because this is an understated and overlooked benefit of XML over any binary (or XML wannabe) format out there. And none of these benefits can you find in MARCXML because there's only two levels involved; field and sub-field. it's, in fact, rather flat and with non-semantic names. Can you get any further from the reasons XML was created?

Librarians think they can throw XML tools and programmers at it with ease

No you can't. Your XML is bad, and XML tools and programmers are going to struggle with your XML. They'll waste most of their time trying to figure out why the hell someone came up with this evil way of making your brain melt. Well, obviously, if your brain melts, it's evil, but there is something so anti-XML about the way MARCXML was designed I'm starting to wonder.

There's probably a ton of tools out there that deals great with XML, but not a single tool (at least in the mainstream) that has ever heard of MARCXML, and even when you throw the MARCXML Schema at them it does them little to no good. You still need domain experts to do anything with it, you still need special knowledge to move around it, and you get absolutely nothing for free in the lack of typed data and semantically rich markup.

Librarians think they get all the XML goodies and benefits

XML comes with a host of good stuff, like xml:id and xml:idrefs attributes that lots of tools understand (including XSLT), in-build language support, extensibility through namespaces, mixed content models, character encoding rules and guarantees, Unicode (for the most part), and when you think of all the XML technologies out there who already adhere and use these benefits to create a complete development universe, who's missing out on all of this?

2. Lossless Conversion of MARC to XML

3. Roundtripability from XML back to MARC

Both of these are the same; we're not using any of the goodness of XML, we're pretty much MARC in a small XML wrapper, so we can easily convert back and forth from MARC and MARCXML. But conversions between XML schemas isn't in scope, so as long as you're working in your own little non-shared universe you're good to go, but life sucks if you dare step out of it.

4. Data Presentation

Once MARC data has been converted to XML, data presentation is possible by writing a XML stylesheet to select the MARC elements to be displayed and to apply the appropriate markup.

This must be part of that "framework" they're talking about but, um, you can present MARC elements and records with or without XML, and converting it into something else in the first place denotes that you can do "stuff" with it. This point is mere fluff.

5. MARC Editing

Some single or batch updates such as adding, updating, or deleting a field to a MARC record can be accomplished with simple XML transformations
Ugh, more fluff. This is basically saying "you can do stuff with it. Do it yourself."

6. Data Conversion

Most data conversions can be written as XML transformations. For more complex transformations of the data, software tools which read MARC XML can be written.
And yet more fluff, saying the same "you can do stuff with it. Do it yourself."

7. Validation of MARC data

Validation with this schema is accomplished via a software tool. This software, external to the schema, will provide three possible levels of validation:
* Basic XML validation according to the MARC XML Schema
* Validation of MARC21 tagging (field and subfield)
* Validation of MARC record content, e.g., coded values, dates, and times.
Now it's getting crazy. First, "basic validation according to MARC XML Schema" means you can make sure that the XML document hasn't got more than 5 elements, the right set of very few attributes, and that's it. Basically, the advantage you get here is to make sure that the crappy structure of MARCXML is preserved and valid. Goody.

Secondly, validation of tagging doesn't exists! What they really mean is that the formatting in the tagging attributes are according to certain character-based rules, that the type (which is extremely loose) is correct. Tagging, you may ask. No, not tagging (which would be useful), but the MARC tags which comes in the absolute number of 999 and are, of course, all numbers. And the validation doesn't even adhere to the type-based system the tags themselves denote. Incredible, ain't it?

Third, the bragging of "Validation of MARC record content" is pure nonsense and doesn't exists unless, you guessed it, made it yourself or found someone else's code. Good luck with all that.

8. Extensiblity

By using XML as the structure for MARC records, users of the MARC in the XML framework can more easily write their own tools to consume, manipulate, and convert MARC data.
Finally, the biggest bullshit statement of all, the one that basically says "now it's in XML; everything will be easy from here on in."

This last section gets its own headline;

What really happens

Seriously, have the people involved in MARCXML any expertise in XML? I know this is a bold and somewhat insulting statement. I can understand why MARCXML became what it is, because it's the first and simplest step one can take in getting anything into XML. The claims made about it, though, does not hold up to scrutiny, and in fact is outright bullshitting you into thinking MARCXML should even be considered to be a part of your development tool-chest. It should not.

The whole idea of XML is to have your meta data be the markup, and the data be, uh, data. When we have complex titles, here's what it should look like;
<title>Arithmetic <responsibility>Carl Sandburg ; illustrated as an anamorphic adventure by Ted Rand.</responsibility></title>

But even this isn't good enough; we need typed data values, so that we can verify that what we put in can be used for something we know about, and this is glaringly absent from MARCXML. They probably thought that the problem was too hard, we'll deal with it later, but we are much later now, and nothing has changed. It's luring poor innocent librarians into thinking they're XML savvy, having catalogers think it solves some kind of meta data exchange problem with non-librarians, and making library techies embarrassed to ask XML questions in the fora of the world.

Take a look at this insane example they provide on their website. If you're a MARC junkie you might make something out of it, but if you are anyone else you'll balk at the complexities thrown at you. And the really bad part is that this stuff ain't complex, it only looks that way through crap XML. Here, being in XML is working against you. So, don't show this to your parents.

Finally, forget that MARCXML ever came to be, and look to MADS and MODS instead. Anything but MARCXML. I beg you.

24 September 2008

The Library World and their lack of opinions

There's a mystical place out there, a place drenched in magic, adventure and fantastic experiences, where your soul and senses meets the challenge of the human spirit. No, not the church nor the congressional house, but the library.

I love this place. I love this culture. But it needs your help, because it is dying. There's many reasons for why this is so, but in my mind the two main reasons are that a) the book as a medium ain't good enough as the world hits a certain complexity, and b) librarians still think that the library is mostly a place to find books on shelves.

As much as I could go on at length on both these things - and I probably will in the near future - right now I'd like to tell you a secret. It's not a big thing and I might be wrong, but I've observed this little professional quirk the librarians embrace quite vigorously;

Librarians have no opinions.

Well, obviously not true as many of them have lots and great opinions which they've shared with me on a number of occasions. But when you ask them for information they will not tell you what book on the subject is the best, because, you know, we're human, you have to find out that piece of opinion for yourself. Librarians are not supposed to say things like "you'd enjoy that book", only (if they're big risk-takers and on the edge of library society) "I enjoyed this book," a doctrine that has a long and proud history in the library world. I know this is very academic and proper, but nowhere have I seen it so strong as in the library world.

I'm an avid library user. I've always loved libraries, and especially when I'm looking for some specific piece of information it's the number one place to go. And as such heavy librarian use I've become pretty good at telling good from bad. Let's define good as "getting you what you wanted or something even better" and bad as "getting something in the ballpark of what you wanted, with a feeling that there surely must be more?" These definitions work just as well with literature as with history and with science or any other reason you go to the library.

I think you can guess by now what I'm getting at; the good library experience comes through librarians who dare to challenge the stronghold of "no opinion." When the librarian daringly points out that I might enjoy this book by some other author that what I was looking at, that's when the magic happens! Serendipity!

Good librarians know to break this "no opinion" guideline. Good librarians know how to create magic and adventure. And I think good librarians know that this is their biggest and most wonderful weapon in the battle for the library of the future.

My good friend (who I miss dearly) Bobby "Slobo" Graham from the National Library of Australia kept telling me of a saying of sorts that I can't recall the origins of;

"Serendipity is when you go to the library to take out a book, and end up taking out the librarian."

At the library I've smiled, I've cried, I've danced, struggled, had love, made philosophy, drank the kool-aid and smelt victory. You should also. And tell those risque librarians that you love them. I know I do.

19 September 2008

Why I trust Google

Low blog season for meg as life swooshes by and I'm preparing for the time that has already gone. But I do trust Google, and here's why.

27 August 2008

Oh waily, waily me!

Ok, summer is over, and I'm back at work, the household is busy with their various stuff (night-school, school, kindergarten, mini-kindergarten, from oldest to youngest). We're an extremely busy little flock, I dare say.

However, amidst all this family busy life there is a slow, slow, slow realization of the self that is going on. I'm getting old. And I'm not working with what I want to do right now. Seriously, if you're going to have a super-busy life, at least I would like it to be busy with stuff I want to do. The family part is dandy. No, it's the work part that keeps me up at night.

The company I work for is great. Seriously. Really great. It's not their fault, it's mine. You see, I think a lot, and a lot of my thinking is about stuff that my work really don't do much of. I have dreams, passions and aspirations that travels well out of scope for the IT consultancy gig I do every day.

Like, building the most energy efficient, low-maintenance wave-based hydro-electro generator ever. Or the non-maintainence, micro-inducing, piggy-backed salt-to-freshwater plant ever thought of. Or the zero-impact house water system (gray and white at the same time). Or design the coolest child-friendly gadget that my daughter cries about at night for not getting. Or change organization processes and communication from bad to great. Or help people realize their own potential. Or, you know, make people happier.

I'm an ideas guy. I shouldn't really be a boring consultant, at least not for customers who wants me to do exactly as they say. I'm into innovation, into doing new and exciting (but not stupid) things, bordering on crazy but never go as far as sick. I love to work with people to come up with new stuff, or refine old stuff. Fix problems. Solve the impossible. Free Willy. Save the planet. Create art.

I think a lot, and I'm getting older.


Ok, back to tuning my Tomcat context to understand proper REST patterns without interfering too much, and then fine-tune some Topic Maps optimizations in my RDBMS. *sigh* *pining for the fjords*

24 July 2008

Holiday blues

Sam's got the blues ...

... and we'll be back to "normal" next week. Hope you've all had a great time. We went to Denmark for a quickie, and to the mountains of Trysil (Norway) for a weeks cabin-fever fun. We've had a good time, but it's good to get back, too. Now, what was I doing again?

3 July 2008

Round and round it goes

This morning was a good one. I got on the bus, armed with breakfast banana in hand, and right there in front of me sat fellow Topic Mapper Stian Danenbarger (from Bouvet), who happened to be living just literally down the road from me. I've been living at Korsvoll (in Oslo) for 6 months now without bumping into him, how odd is that?

Anyways, the last few days I've written about Language and Semantics and about context for understanding communication (all with strong relations to programming languages), and needless to say this became the topic (heh) of discussion on the bus this morning as well.

In this post I'll try to summarize the discussion so far, implement the discussion I had on the bus this morning, coupled with a discussion I've had with Reginald Braithwaite on his blog, from "My mixed feelings about Ruby". Let's start with Reginald and move backwards.

Matz has said that Ruby is an attempt to solve the problem of making programmers happy. So maybe we aren’t happy with some of the accidental complexity. But can we be happy overall? Can we find a way to program in harmony with Ruby rather than trying to Greenspun it into Lisp?
I think that the goal of making programmers happy is a good one, although I suspect there's more than one way to please a programmer. One way is perhaps rooted in the syntax of the language at hand. Then there's the semantics of your language keywords. Another is to have good APIs to work with. Another is how meta the language is (i.e. how much freedom the programmer has in changing the semantics of the language, where Lisp is very meta while Java is not at all), and yet another is the community around it. Or the type and amount of documentation. Or its run-time environment. Or how the code is run (interpreted? compiled? half-compiled to bytecodes?).

Can we find ways in programming that would make all programmers happy? I need to now point back to my first post about Language and Semantics and simply reiterate that there's a tremendous lack of focus on why we program in most modern programming languages. Their idea is to shift bits around, and seldom to satisfy some overal more abstract problem. So for me it becomes more important to convey semantics (i.e. meaning) through my programming more than just having the ability to do so. Most languages will solve any problem you have, so what does the different languages offer us? In fact, how different are they most of the time?
At this moment in time I have extremely mixed feelings about Ruby. I sorely miss the elegance and purity of languages like Scheme and Smalltalk. But at the same time, I am trying to keep my mind open to some of the ways in which Ruby is a great programming language.
I think we really agree here. My own experiences with over 8 years of professional XSLT development (yes, look it up :) has taught me some valuable lessons about how elegant functional programming can be, just like Lisp and the mix-a-lot SmallTalk (which I like less of the two). But then I like certain ways that Ruby does things too, with a better syntax for one. I like to bicker about syntax. Yeah, I'm one of those. And I think I bicker about syntax for very good reasons, too;


In "just enough to make some sense" I talk about context; how many hints do we need to provide in order to communicate well? Make no mistake; when we program, we are doing more than solving the shifting of bits and bytes back and forth. We are giving hints to 1) a computer to run the code, and 2) the programmer (either the original developer, or someone else looking at her code). Most arguments about syntax seems to stem from 1) in which 2) becomes a personal opinion of individuals rather than a communal excericse. In other words, syntax seems to come from some human designer trying to express hints best to the computer in order to shift bits about, instead of focusing entirly on their programming brothers and sisters.

In the first quote about Ruby being designed in order to please the programmer, that would imply that 2) was in focus, but the focus of that quoted statemement is all wrong; it pleases some programmers, but certainly not all, otherwise why are we even talking about this stuff?

Ok, we're ready to move on to the crux of the matter, I think.
I am arguing that while it is easy to agree that languages ought to facilitate writing readable programs, it is not easy to derive any tangible heuristics for language design from this extremely motherhood and apple pie sentiment.
Readability is an important and strong word. And it is very important, indeed. We need everything to be readable, from syntax to APIs to environments and onwards. I think we all want this pipe-dream, but we all see different ways of accomplishing it. Some say it's impossible, others say it's easy, while people like Reginald I think is right there in the middle, the ultimate pragmatic stance. And if I had never done Topic Maps I would be right there with him. Like Stian Danenberger said this morning, there's more to readability than just reading the code well.

Topic Maps

Yeah, it's time talk about what happens when you drink the kool-aid and you accept the paradigm shift that comes with it. There's mainly x things I've learned through Topic Maps;
  • Everything is a model, from the business ideals and processes, to design and definition, our programming languages, our databases, the interaction against our systems, and the human aspect of business and customers. Models, models, everywhere ...
  • All we want to do is to work with models, and be able to change those models at will
  • All programming is to satisfy recreating those models
Have you ever looked at model-driven architecture or domain-driven design? These are somewhat abstract principles to creating complex systems. Now, I'm not going to delve into the pros and cons of these approaches, but merely point out that they were "invented" out from a need that programming languages didn't solve, namely the focus on models.

Think about it; in every aspect of our programming life, all we do is trying to capture models which somehow mimics the real-life problem-space. The shifting of bits wouldn't be necessary if there wasn't a model were working towards. We create abstract models of programming that we use in order to translate between us humans and those pesky computers who's not smart enough to understand "buy cheap, sell expensive" as a command. This is the main purpose of our jobs - to make models that translate human problems into computer-speak - and then we choose our programming language to do this in. In other words, the direction is not language first then the problem, but the other way around. In my first post in this series I talked about tools, and about choosing the "right tool for the job." This is a good moment to lament some of what I see are the real problems of modern programming languages.

What objects?

Object-oriented programming. Now, don't get me wrong, I think OOP is a huge improvement over the process-oriented imperative ways of the olden ways. But as I said in my last post, it looks so much like the truth, we mistakenly treat it as truth. The truth is there's something fundamentally wrong with what we know as object-oriented programming.

First of all, it's not labeled right. Stian Danenbarger mention that someone (can't remember the name; Morten someone?) said it should be called "Class-based programming", or - if you know the Linnean world - taxonomical programming. If you know about RDF and the Semantic Web, it too is based loosely on recursive key/value pairs, creating those tree-structures as the operative model. This is dangerously deceitful, as I've written about in my two previous posts. The world is not a tree-structure, but a mix of trees, graphs and vectors, with some semi-ordered chaos thrown in.

Every single programming approach, be it a language or a paradigm like OOP or functional, comes with its own meta model of how to translate between computers and the humans that use them. Every single approach is an attempt to recreate those models, to make it efficient and user-friendly to use and reuse those models, and make it easy to change the models, remove the models, make new ones, add others, mix them, and so on. My last post goes into much detail about what those meta models are, and those meta models define the communication from human to computer to human to computer to human, and on and on and on.

It's a bit of a puzzle, then, why our programming languages focus less on the models and more on shifting those bits around. When shifting bits are the modus operandi and we leave the models in the hands of programmers who normally don't think too much about those models (and, perhaps by inference, programmers who don't think about those models goes on to design programming languages in which they want to shift bits around ...), you end up with some odd models, which at most times are incompatible with each other. This is how all models are shifted to the API level.

Everyone who has ever designed an API knows how hard it can be. Most of the time you start in one corner of your API thinking it's going smooth until you meet with the other end, and you hack and polish your API as best you can, and release version 1.0. If anyone but you use that API, how long until requests for change, bugs, "wouldn't it make more sense to ...", "What do you mean by 'construct objects' here?", and on and on and on. Creating APIs is a test of all the skills you've got. And all of the same can be said about creating a programming language.

Could the problem simply be that we're using a taxonomic programming language paradigm in which we try to create a graph structured application? I like to think so. Why isn't there native support in languages for typed objects, the most basic building block of categorisation and graphing?

$mice = all objects of type 'mouse' ;

Or cleanups?

set free $mice of type 'lab' ;

Or relationships (with implicit cardinality)?

with $mice of type ('woodland')
add relationship 'is food' to objects of type 'owl' ;

Or prowling?

with $mice that has relationship to objects of type ('owl')
add type ('owl food') ;

Or workflow models?

in $workflow at option ('is milk fresh?') add possible response ('maybe')
with task ('smell it') and path back to parent ;

[disclaimer : these are all tounge-in-cheek examples]

I know you can extend some languages to do the basic bidding here, for example in JavaScript I can change the prototype for basic objects and types, but it's an extension each programmer must make and the syntax is bound to the limits of the meta model of the language, amking most such extensions look kludgy and inelegant. And unless they know all the problems that I think we've been talking about here, they really won't do this. This sort of discussion certainly does not appear where people learn programming skills.

No, most programming languages follow the tree-structure quite faithfully, or more precise the taxomatic model (which is mostly trees but with the odd jump (relationship) sideways in order to deal with the kludges that didn't fit the tree). Our programs are exactly that; data and code, and the programming languages define not only the syntax for how to deal with the data and code, but the very way we think about dealing with blobs of data and code.

They define the readability of our programs. So, Reginald closes;
Again we come down to this: readability is a property of programs, and the influence of a language on the readability of the programs is indirect. That does not mean the language doesn't matter, but it does make me suspicious of the argument that we can look at one language and say it produces readable programs and look at another language and say it does not.
Agreed, except I think most of the languages we do discuss are all forged over the same OOP and functional anvil, in the same "shifting the bits and byes back and forth" kind of thinking. I think we need to think in terms of the reason we program; those pesky models. Therein lies the key to readability, when the code resembles the models we are trying to recreate.

Syntax for shifting bits around

Yes, syntax is perhaps more important than we like to admit. Syntax defines the nitty-gritty way we shift those bits around in order to accomplish those modeling ideals. It's all in the eyes of the beholder, of course, just like every programming language meta model have their own answer. What is the general consensus on good syntax that convey the right amount of semantics in order for us all to agree to its meaning?

There's certain things which seems to be agreed on. Using angle brackets and the equal sign for comparators of basic types, for example, or using colon and equal to assign values (although there's a 50/50 on that one), using curly brackets to denote blocks (but not closures), using square brackets for arrays or lists (but not in functional languages), using parenthesis for functional lists, certain keywords such as const for constants, var for variables (mostly loosly typed languages, for some reason) or int or Int for integers (basic types or basic type classes), and so on. But does any of this really matter?

As shifting bytes around, I'd say they don't matter. What matters is why they're shifting the bytes around. And most languages don't care about that. And so I don't care about the syntax or the language quirks of inner closures when inner closures are a symptom of us using the wrong tools for the modeling job at hand. We're bickering about how to best do it wrong instead of focusing on doing it right. Um, IMHO, of course, but that's just the Topic Maps drugs talking.

Just like Robert Barta (who I'd wish would come to dinner more often), I too dream of a Topic Maps (or graph based) programming language. Maybe it's time to dream one up. :)

2 July 2008

Just enough to make some sense

I've realized that my previous post on language and semantics could possibly be a bit hard to understand without having the proper context wrapped around it, so today I'll continue my journey of explaining life, universe and everything. Today I want to talk about "just enough complexity for understanding, but not more."


Let's talk about mouse. Or a mouse. Mice. Let's talk about this ;

One can argue whether this is really enough context for us to talk about this thing. What does "mouse" mean here? The Disney mouse? A computer mouse? The mouse shadow in the second moon? In order for me to communicate clearly with my fellow human beings I need to provide just enough information so that we can figure this out, so I say "mouse, you know the furry, multivorus, small critter that ..." ;

This is too much information, at least for most cases. I'm not trying to give you all the information I know about mice, but just enough for me to say "I saw a mouse yesterday in the pantry." Talking about context is incredibly hard, because, frankly, what does context mean? And how much background information do I need to provide to you in order for you to understand what I'm talking about?

In terms of language "context" means verbal context as words and expressions that surrounds a word, and social context as the connection between the words and those who hear or read them based on the human constraints (age, gender, knowledge, etc.) There's also some controversy about this, and we often also imply certain mental models (social context of understanding).

In general, though, we talk about context as "that stuff that surrounds the issue", from solid objects, ideas, my mental state, what I see, what I know, what my audience see and knows, hears, smells, cultural and political history, musical tastes, and on and on and on. Everything in the moment and everything in the past in order to understand the current communication that takes us to the future.

Yup, it's pretty big and heady stuff, and it's a darn interesting question; how much context do you need in order to communicate well? My previous post was indeed about how much context we need to put into our language and definition in order to communicate well.

A bit of background

Back in 1956 a paper by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller changed a lot of how we think about our own capacity for juggling stuff in our heads. It's a most famous paper, where further research since has added to and confirmed the basic premise that there's only so much we're able to remember at the same time. And the figure that came up was 7, plus / minus 2.

Of course that number is specific to that research, and may mean very little in the scheme of more specific settings. It's a general rule, though, that hints to the limits we have in cognition, in the way we observe and respond to communication. And it certainly helps us understand the way we deal with context. Context can be overly complex, or overly simple. Maybe the right amount of context is 7, plus / minus 2?

Just right

I'm not going to speculate much in what it means that "between 5 and 9 equally-weighted error-less choices" defines arbitrary constraints on our mental storage capacity (short-term especially), but I'll for sure speculate that it guides the way we can understand context, and perhaps especially where it's loosely defined.

We humans have a tendency to think that those things that looks like the truth must be the truth. We do this perhaps especially in the way we deal with computer systems, because, frankly, it's easy to define structures and limitations there. It's what we do.

An example of this is how we observe anything as containers that may contain things, that in themselves might be containers which might be things or more containers, and so on. Our world is filld with this notion, from taxonomies, to object-oriented programming, to XML, to how we talk bout structures and things, to how science was defined, and on and on and on. Tree-structures, basically.

But as anyone with a decent taxonomic background knows, taxonomies don't always work as a strict tree-structure. Neither does anyone who's meddled in OO for too long. Or fiddled with XML until the angle-brackets break. These things looks so much like the truth that we pursue them as truth.

things are more chaotic than we like. They're more, in fact, like graph structures, where relationships between things go back and forth, up and down, over and under already established relationships. It can be quite tricky, because the simple "this container contains these containers" mentality is gone, and a more complex model appears;

This is the world of the Semantic Web and Topic Maps, of course, and many of the reasons why these emerging technologies are, er, emerging is of course because all containers aren't containers at all, and that the semantics of "this things belongs to that thing" isn't precise enough when we want to communicate well. Explaining the world in terms of tree-structures puts too many constraints on us, so many that we spend most our time trying to fit our communication into it rather than simply defining them.

We could go back to frames theory as well, with recursive key/value properties that you find naturally in b-trees, where values are either a literal, or another property. RDF is based on this model, for example, where the recursiveness is used for creating graph structures. (Which is one reason I hate RDF, using anonymous nodes for literals)

Programming languages and meta models

Programming languages don't extend the basic pre-defined model of the language much. Some languages allow some degree of flexibility (such as Ruby, Lisp and Python), some offer tweaking (such as PHP. Lua and Perl), while others offer macroing and overloading of syntax (mostly C family), and yet more are just stuck in their modeling ways (Java). [note: don't take these notions too strictly; there's a host of features to these languages that mix and match various terms, both within and outside of the OO paradigm]

What they all have in common is that the defined meta model is linked to shifting bits and bytes around a computer program, and that all human communication and / or understanding is left in the hands of programmers. Let's talk about meta models.

Most programming languages have a set of keywords and syntax that make up a model of programming. this is the meta model; it's a foundation of a language, a set of things in which you build your programs on. All programming languages have more or less of them, and the more they have, the stricter they usually are as well. Some are object oriented languages, other functional, some imperative, and yet other mixes things up. If I write ;

Int i = new Int ( 34) ;

in Java, there's only so many ways to interpret that. It's basically an instance of the Integer class, that holds the integer number of 34. But what about

$i = new Int ( 34 ) ;

in PHP? There is no built-in class called Int in PHP, so this code either fails or produce an instance of some class called Int, but we do not know what that means, at least not at this point. And this is what the meta model defines; built-in types, classes, APIs and the overall framework, how things are glued together.

As such, Java and .Net has huge meta models defined, so huge that you can spend your whole career in just one part of it. PHP has a medium meta model, Perl even smaller, all the way down to assembler with a rather puny meta model. Syntax and keywords is not just how we program, but they define the constraints of our language. There's things that's easy and hard in every language, and there is no one answer to what the best programming language is. They all do things differently.

The object-oriented ways of Java differ to the ones of Ruby which differs to the ways of C++ which differs to the ways of PHP. The functional ways of Erlang differs to XSLT which differs to Lisp.

The right answer?

There is no right answer. One can always argue about the little differences between all thse meta models, and we do, all the time. We bicker about operator overloading, about whether mutliple inheritance is better than single inheritance, one the real difference between interfaces and abstract classes, about getter and setter methods (or lack thereof), about types should be first class objects or not, about what closures are, wheter to use curly-brackets or define programming structure through whitespace, and on and on and on.

My previous post was another way of saying that we perhaps should argue less about the meta model of our language, and worry more about the reason the computer was created more than how a certain problem was solved? We don't have the mental capacity to juggle too much stuff around in our brains, and if the meta model is huge, our ability to focus on perhaps the important bits become less.

There are so many levels of communication in our development stack. Maybe we should introduce a more semantically sane model into it to move a few steps closer to the real problem, the communication between man and machine? I'm not convinced that OO nor functional programming solves the human communication problem. let's speculate and draw sketches on napkins.

30 June 2008

Language, semantics and software development

I just read Robert Barta's hilarious post on some of Java's (the programming language) antics, which, for those who's following from home, I agree with wholeheartedly. His post triggered a monologue in my head as I was going out for coffee today, and I felt the need to jot down what I think is my thoughts on languages, semantics and semiotics from that inner tirade.

No, this won't be on programming languages, at least not only. Language permutes every aspect of our human evolvement, and has been one of the main factors for our success for the last 100 000 years or more, and lays down the foundations for that one thing which everything else spins around; communication.

We communicate. We all do it, all the time, every day. In fact, apart from physically mundane things such as eating, resting and procreating, it is all we do.

But as much as we do it all the time, and as such you would expect us to get better at it, we need more than just communication, but the right kind of communication. Anything can communicate, but anything can't always communicate well. A dog barks at me, but I'm not always sure what that bark means (although the drool and glistening fangs provide valuable hints). Good communication is how to get the message across without ambiguity.

Developing software

Let's take a rather common problem; how do we develop software? Well, it's actually quite easy. Just open whatever tool you need, start writing code, hit "compile", and voila! The trick is of course not to develop software, but to develop software well, to remove the ambiguity between the tools we use and the customer who asked for it. And just like with communication, we expect that if we do this often and repeatedly, we learn something along the way, and get better at it.

But developing software still sucks. I've been in this business for almost 20 years working in more than 7 different countries, and every place had the exact same problem; how do we get the communication right?

There's an absolutely stunning focus amongst people in my line of work on the technological parts of the solutions we create. Of course we need those technological bits to make stuff happen, but most of the time they drive the solution more than the other way around. There's a sensible saying that says "choose the right tool for the job", but it seems to me that very few actually stop and ponder that very good piece of advice. What does it mean to choose the "right tool for the job"?

The job

There's a few indicators to the problem above. First of all, what is "the job"?

Our ideal target is a working functionally-complete system that solves some loosely defined problem. As professionals we put a lot of methodology and effort into translating that napkin sketch into documentation fit for enterprise development, which in turn will be translated into programming code, which in turn a GUI will translate to the users of the system. We can say with great confidence that "the job" is pretty much a translation job.

How many levels of translation can we find in our daily work? Let's see, first there's Bob who has an idea (level 1) who talks to an agreeing Pete (level 2), they talk to John (level 3) who agrees (level 4) who writes a mail (level 5) to the marketing manager (level 6) who brings that to a meeting (level 7) to get agreement (level 8). Then John takes the revised document (level 9) to the CEO (level 10) who agrees (level 11) and gives a go, to which the document is sent to Sam who will write a spec (level 12) which Bob, Pete, John, CEO, Marketing boss and Sam all agree on matches the original idea (level 13). Then the spec is sent to the development project manager Jim (level 14) for scheduling, and then to the development team (level 15) for estimation and thoughts (level 16). they come up with estimations and suggestions (level 17), there's a bit back and forth between them and marketing (level 18 through 22), before Jill the functional designer is given the roughly agreed upon documents (level 23) which she alters (level 24) and the leadership team agrees with (level 25). The document now goes back to the development team approved (level 26), and entered their schedule. Development starts with visual design sketches by Pop (level 27), which needs approval (level 28 through 34), which Jim further plans (level 35), and then each developer gets a slice of the new plan (level 36 through 40). A couple of iterations go by (level 41 through 46), and we're ready for development release 1 (level 47) which needs to be agreed upon by all bosses involved (level 48), with tweaks and continued development iterations ongoing (level 49 through 52), we're getting to first test version (level 53), which needs agreement from bosses (level 54 through 57), and finally the first production release that is to match Bob's idea (level 58), to which Bob says "WTF?" (level 59) and to which customers respond "WTF?" (level 60 through 65)

You get the picture. And it gets worse; not only must we translate from person to person, but from person to tool to person to tool to tool to tool to person to tool to person to person to tool to tool ... and on and on and on.

The tools

It's hence a given that our tools need to be good at translations between humans and computers, no? The whole idea of programming languages is to do just this, so choose your language wisely, young padawan. Some choose low-level languages to get closer to how the computer sees things, other choose high-level languages hoping those who built the underlying layers have all the semantics down pat. Or up.

Back to Robert's post; in Java people use a lot of syntax to express something that in other languages takes less. But is language about semantics? Is the difference between French and German the words they use? Of course not. The same goes for programming languages.

How many levels of translation do I find in my development stack these days? I'm doing a pretty straight-forward webapp wizard thing. We could start with the customer having an old webapp which sucks, and they want a new and improved one. So they tell us what they want (level 1) which we jot down on paper (level 2) while showing us the old one (level 3), of which we agree roughly on what needs to be done (level 4). Our functional designer draws up a few sketches (level 5), which the customer representative agrees to (level 6) which she takes up the ladder to get more agreement on (level 7), and we're handed responses (level 8) to which we update the sketches (level 9) ... and on and on and on.

But let's look at it strictly from a technical aspect. Let's pretend we have a joint human understanding of what the needs and solutions should be. First, there's legacy to look at, and here we've got Java all the way (level 1), running WebSphere app servers (level 2), using enterprise given code guides shaped with Java 1.6 / 6 (level 3), running in three environments (level 4), with Maven to build (level 5), Hibernate for db (level 6), Struts 2.0 for MVC (level 7) and some JSP semantics (level 8), FileTags for more JSP "fun" (level 9), and of course JSP itself with mixed in Java code (level 10), running Jetty in development (level 11), with proxied Maven repositories due to no internet connection in devel (!!) (level 12), our own JavaBean naming conventions (level 13), legacy-based property names (level 14), about 10 different Java tools that comes bundled (but not used) with the platform (level 15, just in case namespaces gets muddled) ... and on and on and on. And that's just development. I could add a cut-down version of Eclipse as IDE (levels 16 through 20), running through WM Ware (level 21) and Citrix for intranet access (level 22), servers running Linux (level 23 through 25) while we develop on Windows XP (level 26 through 28) ...


You know, at this point we gotta mentions application programming interface (API), because, frankly, they drive me friggin' nuts! Basically they are lists of words (which are objects or functions) that convey semantics of whatever module they represent. Sorry, that was the interpretive version. I mean, they are "a set of declarations of the functions (or procedures) that an operating system, library or service provides to support requests made by computer programs." It's what we use - all the time, all over the place - to have bits of software talk to other bits. All the semantics (i.e. meaning) is left in the hands of those write the docs for those APIs, which must match the behaviour of the code. Without this perfect match of perfect symmetry, everything can quite quickly turn to batshit. And it does, because this is what programmers really do all day; try to use APIs the way they were intended. Communication, programmer to programmer. But the focus again is on technology, rarely on the meaning of the thing.

Did I mention that I hate automated documentation with a passion? The way an API works is left in the hands of programmers slapping keywords with short explanations in code? All the hundreds of layers of fragile communication is autogenerated from code?

I refer often to something I call API thinking, where the semantics of a problem space is defined through keywords. It's a bit like trying to explain the complex nature of the Iraq War (the current one) in terms of War, Bush, 1991, 2001, USA, Iraq, Oil, WMD, and few getters and setters on top. Let's call it the iWreck API ;
Dependency oil = new Dependency ( Dependency::RESOURCE_OIL ) ;
int startDate = new Date ( "2001" ) ;
War war = new War ( startDate, War::TIME_UNKNOWN ) ;
war.author = "Bush" ;
war.history = new HistoryFactory ( new HistoryContext ( new Context ( new Identifier ( ... ) ) ) ) ) ) ;
There, done. Easy-peasy. Now we know the meaning of the Iraq War (current). What else is there to say? Come to think of it, I reckon Bush would make an excellent programmer.

Stacking it up

How many levels of translating our communication from one unit to the other have we got when we add them all up, all the human ones, the tools and the systems? Bucketloads! So many it is quite crazy to think that any of the original ideas come through this enormous filter monster we have created!

Doing communication right is damn hard. How can I explain? Maybe through example. I had some JSP code similar to this ;
<sub-section />
<sub-section />
<sub-section />
When someone was going through the code for this, they found out that the JSP for the
tag didn't add any HTML nor did any logic in it, but simply told the compiler to travel up the stack. They hence removed
tags, because they didn't have any functionality attached. We now got;
<sub-section />
<sub-section />
<sub-section />
I'm not sure you've noticed, but you just lost the semantics between the <framework> and a <sub-section>. What is a sub-section without a section? It's API hell, that's what. It may not look like much of a deal to most people, but remember here what we're trying to do, remember that very thing, the most important thing in all that we do; communication! And when you're removing a section in which a sub-section lives, you get a sub-section out of context. The reason for the sub-sections' life is lost, and the technologists killed it thinking they cleared things up by removing redundant code.

My soul weeps. I see this sort of innocent but utterly devestating loss of semantics through every level of interpretation, from customer to developer to user. We remove little bits here and there, add a bit there, and the original idea comes out all warped and garbled, and we think it is a good thing!

Folks, if I have one request if you were to listen to anything, then please be careful about semantics and meaning, careful about adding it in, state purpose and meaning, write more about what the hell the point of what you're trying to achive, in your APIs, in code, in thinking, in documenting, in specing, in talking to eachother, in anything you do, and - perhaps and hopefully poignantly - in reading my little plea for semantic sanity in software development.

24 June 2008

Thoughts on PHP

Yes, yes, I admit the herasy; I like PHP. No, no, PHP has tons of worts with it, so no, it's not better that alternative X, Y or Z for task Q, W or E. I hate comparing languages this way, feature by feature, syntax by semantics, and so on. I like to judge languages on two things;


I really like the CGI style for web resources. No, PHP ain't CGI (unless you're in a pain-self-inflicting mood) but most often a glorious Apache module which reuse all the goodness it can offer, but the model of a totally independent scripting engine which needs to mold its relationships, and then you throw it away when you're done, makes for a clean, fast and very scalable framework. PHP basically compiles together mostly C modules, and use its simple syntax to glue stuff together. Yes, there's a backlog of really shitty and badly written code out there, especially when people have no clue. And when the threshold is as low as it is for PHP, that's inevitable, but I hardly hold that against the language itself. The environment in which that shitty code runs is really good. To me, the environment is the best part of PHP. Perl falls somewhat into this same category.

For those in the know, this model is very similar to how a RESTful system works, where the interpreter is a manifestation of a resource. In resource-oriented development this means gold, and is very important to me as my environment supports my RESTful way of designing systems.


And since style is something any good developer can control themselves (unless their language is super-strict), this really is the main thing that I like about PHP; It gives me the freedom to make things work for me. I can choose the methodology, whether a function, class or inline is best suited, and since PHP always is evaluated in run-time, I can make my environment depend on real-time parameters rather than a pre-compiled utopia.

Zend Framework

I've been using the Zend Framework for the last year or so, and it's a great framework as such, although the focus has been mostly to put OO wrappers around common PHP idioms and conventions. As such it works great to perhaps consolidate the features, and perhaps give PHP 6 a future direction. This is the best part of the Zend Framework.

The bad thing about the Zend Framework is that it imposes its own style, and somewhat alters the environment. Ouch, on both the things that make PHP my choice tool. I've struggled quite a bit in trying to reuse certain parts of the framework, extend others, and generally use some bits without using the whole shebang. There's not a lot of dependencies between the components, but just enough to make it tricky to do serious stuff (for example writing an alternative "threads-like" HTTP adapter to HTTP Request).

Now, people talk about the Zend Frameworks impact on the future of the PHP language. Yes, one can always hope that this is the case, but I think people are a little too preoccupied with the OO capabilities and forgetting perhaps what makes PHP really popular with those who choose to continue to use it past their first few applications. Do not fall into the trap thinking OO is somehow better than other ways.

As much as people think MVC is the best thing, I really don't care about that. MVC works great for some things, not for all (for example, I have a REST framework that use a completely different model, a more resource oriented model), so to impose MVC as the modus operandi is not good, and indeed something that makes reuse of other ZF modules a bit trickier. Instead of a MVC focus, there should be a strong highlighting of a uniform interface to the environment itself. It's the environment that's cool with PHP, so let's make interfacing to that better. There's some work on wrappers and readers for various aspects of the HTTP protocol, but only the most basic stuff is in there and needs serious work. With PHP I could do serious HTTP applications; with Zend Framework I'm limited, and need to hack and extend. Let's get HTTP savvy, not MVC drones.

Availability and diversity

PHP is everywhere. Period. I can use pretty much any ISP or in-house hosting to host most of what I need. And there are so many different open-source projects about that uses PHP (WikiPedia, WordPress, PHPBB, PHPMyAdmin, Drupal, Joomla, Flickr ... the list goes on) meaning both hosting and the amount of high-quality tools are abundant. The LAMP stack is pretty much supported on every hardware and software platform. Heck, I can even run it on the JVM.

I have written many tools over the years, some good, some bad, but I'm always happy to find out that I can copy my old files into any new environment and they will pretty much always run straight away, no tweaking. I can't tell you how important this is!

The shitty stuff

No system is perfect, to some specific definition of what "perfect" means. With PHP, I've learned to live with its odd bits, such as funny booleans and comparators, diverse and non-uniform APIs, sloppy exception handling, no shared memory (which may or may not be a good thing, but certainly a big part of its design), and a few syntactic snuffs (Why not introduce "$$" as a shortcut for "$this->", for example? Tidbits).

Some say that PHP code is crap, usually said when encountering - indeed! - shitty code. But shitty code is everywhere. Even in the most tied-down, static and controlled environments you still get shit. Some say less shit. I say shit with a different color, not different odor. I've been programming for almost 30 years soon, and let me tell you, I've encountered shitty code in every single environment and language I've ever tried, and I'm one of those who tries every language out there. There is no language who can hold a stick to the wonderful imaginitive mind of man, able to lay bricks where diamonds should have shone.

Some say the PHP language itself is immature, or unstructured, or some other parameter that their favourite language holds. No, sorry, but there's not that much which separates all our different languages (except BrainFuck ... that one is seriously different. :), and indeed a lot of the language wars are really more about their API designs than the languages themselves. For example, the syntax of Java is tolerable, but a lot of its APIs are not. The syntax of Python is ok, but some of its APIs are great. Ruby has good syntax, but to me some confusing APIs.

It's really mostly about APIs, and how we create models to solve our problems. It's all about models, as APIs in themselves are models. The API is not the language.

Round off

I should here of course mention the link between models and Topic Maps, as the latter is a way to define, work with and exchange / share the former. Couple this model openness with resource-orientation, and I think it makes for a very interesting environement. But as this whole shebang is part of the new framework I'm working on, expect more blogging on this in the very near future. Have a wonderful week.

13 June 2008

Parting thoughts

It's Friday, and I'm leaving my computer alone over the weekend. It's here at the end of the week I thought I'd give a quick status update on things big and small ;
  • Sam's first steps;

  • Some more family tidbits; Lilje just turned 5, and started barnehage (kindergarten) which she just loves! Grace is going great at school, with lots of friends, and she now speaks a very tolerable Norwegian. We've started to use Norwegian as our main means of talking these days. Sam is a social little rascal, and now of course wants to walk everywhere. Julie is still too far away from her family to really be happy, but at least we have a few favourite things to make our exsistance herer good, such as solskinnsbolle (a kind of layered horizontal whirly bun, with a yummy egg-cream center) at Godt Brød (great littel bakery), coffee at Kaffepikene (the absolutely, without a doubt, the best darn coffee in town!), norwegian bread (how can we ever go back?) and ice-cream. Oh, and my beloved woods. I can't rave enough about the woods! We all love it. We all love Norwegian nature; it's simply stunning, even the simple stuff.
  • My RESTful Topic Maps framework lumbers ahead. I'll be using it for two major real-world projects, and will verify its success or failure from that. I'm sure it will be tweaked a lot.
  • The kids are doing well, the parents not so much; the other side of the planet is somewhat problematic, as our values and views have changed so much in the last 5 years. The Norway I came back to isn't the Norway I left. We're contemplating leaving for Australia sooner than first thought.
  • My eyes have been a painful nightmare the last 6 or 7 years, slowly but surely disintegrating my quality of life (and, sadly, those around me; my nickname lately is "grumpy". I'm so sorry!) where either my glasses have caused a pressure and hence headaches, or the lack of glasses makes me squint to the point of getting headaches, or contacts itch my eyes so much that I fall asleep (probably with a headache). Last month it became unbearable, with headaches (as in migraines; really painful headaches with a center right inside my eyes), and I didn't know what to do. I've so far seen 7 eye specialists (4 in Australia, 3 in Norway), including a full scan of my head and sinuses. Nothing. Until last week, where in a casual conversation between my sister and my wife, the option of allergies to pollen came up, and lo and behold, there seemed to be a pattern match between my worst periods of headaches with pollen outbreaks. Last Sunday I raced to the pharmacy and got anti-histamine pills, and - ladies and gentlemen - I haven't had a single headache since; the pills probably reduce the inflammation in certain pressure-points (top of nose, and the forehead) so the headaches don't develop. As you can imagine, I am over the moon about this result, and I hope there might be some answers as I get myself to a doctor in July for a full checkup on this.
  • I'm doing an interesting UCD project on the side. I had forgotten how much fun and enjoyment I get from facilitating projects and meetings. I have of late immersed myself in coaching (course given through work; I've been doing stuff like this for years, but this time I've formalized it a bit more, and getting a Norwegian translation of the stuff) which seems to come naturally to me. Presentations, meetings, sessions ... I'm having a blast, with good results to boot.
Ok, have a great weekend. See you on the other side.

30 May 2008

Values in life : What moving to the other side of the planet and back teach you

Life goes on. Leaving your friends, family and life behind for any kind of period does not mean they'll wait for your return with baited breath. They move on. They have lives. The country changes. At first that seems like a bad thing, but I'm not so sure.

One thing is for certain; nothing stays the same. When I returned to Oslo a few months ago after a self-imposed 4 year exile (which I honestly thought was going to last much much longer) I felt I had landed on a different planet. Still in a jet-lagged haze I wandered the streets of my birth city, not recognizing the place. Oslo was bigger, yet all buildings were smaller. It was a weird feeling.

It wasn't until I went into my beloved woods that I felt more at home, more at ease with the country I had left for those years. It's very strange, though, how your perception of life, universe and everything changes with a bit perspective in ones life. Learning the ropes of the alien world of Australia made me come home with a mixed bag of feelings, especially perhaps a lesson in what "alien" really means.

Some things are good here in Norway; the people, some foods, the woods, nature, real mountains, a beautiful language, public transport that works, loppemarked, a feeling of being closer to the world, political respect and the natural nurtured meaningful discussion with total strangers, and the living communities.

Some things are bad here; the way we treat foreigners, the beuorocracy, the price of everything, the lack of my wifes' crazy but much loved family and our wonderful Australian friends, lack of recycling, Vinmonopolet, the price of meats (not that we're big on meats, though) and veggies, and that it's harder to shop.

There's lots of contrast between our worlds, contrasts that makes you pay attention to what is important and what is not. And what's important? Family, friends and our happiness. And that is not governed by our opinions on big or small things; they are governed by our own mental ability to be happy with the best of what we've got right now.

We miss Australia very much, both the country and its people (except John Howard and his cronies; we don't miss them), and we know that our time in Norway is limited. We'll see you again shortly, we just need to wrap our heads around this Norwegian crazy first and then we'll be back.

Some of my Australian friends will probably wonder who paid me to say that I miss Australia, and some of my non-Australian friends will wonder who's threatening me to say good things about that place. I mean, unless I talk about the beach and cheap beer, what else is it with Australia worth fighting over? Or Norway, for that matter?

The people. The friendship. The food (although not Vegemite, nor lutefisk) and the drink. The sea, the woods, the sun, the moon, and the surf or turf. Every ingredient any good travel agency could whip up; it's right there, and you can fold your life around it if you plan for it. A beach in Australia is a svaberg in Norway. A beer in Norway is a good imported beer in Australia. The friends in Australia are friends in Norway; there's nice people no matter where you go. And there's family or adopted family in both parts. And, most importantly, life lessons.

It's so easy to accept life as it comes, judging your life based on what you got handed to you instead of what you went to grab yourself. But I needed to learn to grab things that makes sense to the life I wanted, and I can do this in Norway too, or in South-Africa, or Indonesia, or England, or ... It doesn't matter where you are; you can find your travel agency keywords, fold them into a brochure you'd like to read, and live that life. For far too long I've lived life as handed to me. Now I'm living life as I'm grabbing it. By the lapels. See you soon enough, wherever we go.

Ok, just a rambling note on a Friday afternoon. I'm now going to go home and have sausages with my lovely family, and enjoy the warm sun, the shiny waters, and the fertile woods. Have a nice weekend!