An ISO Standard for R (just kidding)

July 24th, 2014 4 comments

IST/5, the British Standards’ committee responsible for programming languages in the UK, has a new(ish) committee secretary and like all people in a new role wants to see a vision of the future; IST/5 members have been emailed asking us what we see happening in the programming language standards’ world over the next 12 months.

The answer is, off course, that the next 12 months in programming language standards is very likely to be the same as the previous 12 months and the previous 12 before that. Programming language standards move slowly, you don’t want existing code broken by new features and it would be a huge waste of resources creating a standard for every popular today/forgotten tomorrow language.

While true the above is probably not a good answer to give within an organization that knows its business intrinsically works this way, but pines for others to see it as doing dynamic, relevant, even trendy things. What could I say that sounded plausible and new? Big data was the obvious bandwagon waiting to be jumped on and there is no standard for R, so I suggested that work on this exciting new language might start in the next 12 months.

I am not proposing that anybody start work on an ISO standard for R, in fact at the moment I think it would be a bad idea; the purpose of suggesting the possibility is to create some believable buzz to suggest to those sitting on the committees above IST/5 that we have our finger on the pulse of world events.

The purpose of a standard is to create agreement around one way of doing things and thus save lots of time/money that would otherwise be wasted on training/tools to handle multiple language dialects. One language for which this worked very well is C, for which there were 100+ incompatible compilers in the early 1980s (it was a nightmare); with the publication of the C Standard users finally had a benchmark that they could require their suppliers to meet (it took 4-5 years for the major suppliers to get there).

R is not suffering from a proliferation of implementations (incompatible or otherwise), there is no problem for an R standard to solve.

Programming language standards do get created for reasons other than being generally useful. The ongoing work on C++ is a good example of consultant driven standards development; consultants who make their living writing and giving seminars about the latest new feature of C++ require a steady stream of new feature to talk about and have an obvious need to keep new versions of the standard rolling down the production line. Feeling that a language is unappreciated is another reason for creating an ISO Standard; the Modula-2 folk told me that once it became an ISO Standard the use of Modula-2 would take off. R folk seem to have a reasonable grip on reality, or have I missed a lurking distorted view of reality that will eventually give people the drive to spend years working their fingers to the bone to create a standard that nobody is really that interested in?

My first day developing for Google Glass

July 19th, 2014 1 comment

I was at the Google Glass Design Sprint & Workshop in London today. I don’t own a Google Glass and applied for one of the limited spaces available to developers who would be lent hardware for the day. Any idea I was harboring of Google recognizing me as an ace hackathon attendee were dashed at the start when we were told that the available slots had been filled by a random draw of applicants.

Vendor presentations at the start of hackathons tend to be either deadly dull or eye opening. Timothy Jordan explained why software written for Google Glass were not Apps, or rather should not be written with this mindset, but needed to be thought of in terms of enhancing the user’s experience in real time the moment; this really clicked with me. He also made some excellent points on user interface issues specific to the glass form factor which I think went over the head of most people present (this really needed its own slot).

I turned up with an App user enhancement experience reasonably well formed in my mind. The idea was to port the numbers tool to Android and have it scan the incoming camera image for numbers, information about the interesting ones being spoken into the users ear (e.g., that number of there is the rest mass of the electron).

On the day Google handled out a half a dozen brief biographies of potential Glass users and asked us to come up with ideas for software to enhance the lives of these people. I came up with the idea for helping the triathlete on the cycling leg of his competition. Having watched highlights from the Tour de France I knew that corners on the downhill stages of mountain routes presented a significant problem to riders traveling at up to 65 mph, i.e., how hard should they break to get safely around a corner whose curvature they could not see. My idea was for the corner curvature user experience to come to life when the riders speed exceeded, say, 45 mph and displayed a simple colored wiggly line that represented what lies around the bend.

Listening to other people at my table and in other groups I was surprised at how many were designing their idea as an App; that is, they wanted user to select from drop down menus and/or specify various numeric/literal values. My pointing out that they were designing Apps was met with blank stares.

Progress on writing actual code was hampered by lunch, having to leave at 17:30 and adb not working out of the box under Windows (this prevented any communication between the Android SDK running on Windows and Google glass). It took a while to figure out that the problem was adb/Windows (the Google folk had no idea it did not work since they all used Linux or Apple Macs). As usual an answer on Stackoverflow explained what changes needed to be made to the Google software. Asking around uncovered a few people with horror stories to tell about getting adb communication under Windows.

Microsoft Windows has significantly slipped in developer tool mind share over the last few years (I am even thinking of buying my first Mac next time I change my laptop). However, there are still a lot of Windows developers out there and Google will need to fix this problem if they want to attract lots and lots of developers.

But the biggest mistake Google need to fix is to make sure they don’t ever again run out of coffee mid-afternoon at an all day hackathon.

Reality in the world of programming language standards

July 16th, 2014 No comments

I see a lot of steam being vented about the standards’ process as applied to programming languages and software related topics. Knowing something about how the process works might help people live calmer lives, at least once they have calmed down after reading this article. What I have to say applies to programming language standards because these are what I have been involved with, as a member and convener of various UK and international committtees, for 25+ years.

  • ISO and your national standards’ body don’t care about the standard you are talking about.

    These organizations are monopolies who are required to demonstrate that documented procedures are followed by all concerned. Can you think of any organizational structure that would create less incentives for those on the inside to listen to those on the outside?

    Yes, these organizations do sell standards but the sales model is all about the long tail and no peak, to speak of, of best sellers. The real business model for running a standards’ organization is to either charge members a fee (your country pays membership dues for each Standards Committee it wants a say in; if your country has not paid to be a member of ISO JTC 1/SC22 you have no say in programming language standards. ANSI in the US charges people for the right to volunteer their time to attend meetings to work on a standard) and/or rely on government subsidy.

    Not being cared about is actually a luxury that people who work in programming language standards should aspire to. The bureaucrats who work in standards hate us; here in the UK there has been at least one attempt to kill off work on programming language standards and I have heard of similar experiences in other countries. The problem is that the standards we produce don’t fit the mold that works for most other standards; programming language standards contain an order of magnitude more pages than the average standard (until recently there was a print run of new standards which then had to be stored until sold and the volume occupied by programming language standards was of note {so I’m reliably informed}), take longer to produce (i.e., more work for the bureaucrats) and all this cost is not justified by the sales figures (which are confidential and last time I saw them only just required me to take my shoes and socks off to count).

  • Standards are created by the volunteers who regularly turn up at meetings.

    It is only the enthusiasm of these volunteers that makes the process work. If you don’t turn up at meetings then what you think does not count (not quite true, something you write might influence the thinking of one of the worker bees who attends meetings resulting in wording in the standard).

    If you really are interested in a standard then become an active member of the committee responsible for it, at least the national one and if you have the time the international one

  • Committee documents can be made public.

    There are no rules preventing a standards committee putting its documents on a website for Joe public to download. The issue is finding somebody willing to do the work of hosting the website (the programming language world is lucky to have Keld Simonsen) and a willingness of committee members to be open about all their documents.

    Looking in from the outside it seems to me that many non-programming language committees want to maintain an aura of mystic and privileged access.

How to avoid being a victim of Brooks’ law

July 9th, 2014 2 comments

The oft cited book The Mythical Man Month contains a statement that has become known as Brooks’ Law: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

When people join a project they need to learn project specific information, this is information that can only be obtained from people already working on the project. Training up new staff (e.g., developers, documentation writers) reduces the amount of effort being directly invested in building the system; it is an investment in people whose benefit is the post-training productivity of those people adding their effort to the project.

Let’s assume that a newbie diverts from the project they are joining an amount of effort units of time, E_T, in training without contributing anything, and that this training/investment lasts for D_t units of time after which the trained person contributes an average of E_n of effort per unit of time until the project deadline. This investment in a newbie will cause the project to be delayed unless the following inequality holds:

(E_a D_t - E_T) + (E_a+E_n)(D_r-D_t) > E_a D_r” title=”(E_a D_t – E_T) + (E_a+E_n)(D_r-D_t) > E_a D_r”/> <img src=

where E_a is the average daily project effort available before a newbie joins and D_r is the number of units of time between the start of training and the delivery date/time.

This simplifies to:

D_r-D_t > {E_T}/{E_n}” title=”D_r-D_t > {E_T}/{E_n}”/> <img src=

an equation that makes the obvious point that as the deadline approaches the amount of time and effort spent training newbies needs to decrease if a worthwhile payback is to be achieved in the available time.

The quantity D_r-D_t is the amount of time remaining after the newbie finishes training (in practice this is rarely a well defined point in time, but let’s keep things simple) and is the only easily obtained information in the equation.

The effort contribution of the newbie, E_n, could be approximated using information on the effort contribution of other people doing a similar job on the project. At least it could be if data was available on what their effort contribution was, and we overlooked the possible 5:1 difference in performance found between software developers. In practice a newbie’s effort contribution ramps up from zero, perhaps even starting during the training period, to a relatively constant long term daily average. How long does it take for E_n to reach the long term average? I have no idea.

How much effort, E_T, goes into training a newbie? A very important factor will obviously be their existing level of expertise with the application domain, tools being used, coding skills, etc (pretty much everything was new, back in the day, for the project analysed by Brooks, so E_T was probably very high). There is also the somewhat nebulous but very important ability, or lack of, to pick things up quickly.

Could data on E_T be obtained by recording every encounter the newbie has with existing project members? This would certainly enable information on first order time interactions to be obtained, but it would not tell us anything about the knock on effects caused by the work of an existing project member being delayed because they were investing in the newbie.

If many people are being added to a project at the same time it is easy to imagine it grinding to a halt because of all the minor congestion that occurs within the network of dependencies that project progress is waiting on.

I have not been able to locate any applicable data relating to training on software development projects, but then this area is at the edge of what I know about. Pointers to data most welcome.

Compiler writing is for hedgehogs

July 2nd, 2014 No comments

It is said that a fox knows many thing, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. An insightful article by Venkatesh Rao (Venkat) showed how foxes and hedgehogs uniquely map to the two contrasting philosophical points of view of those having weak views that are strongly held (a fox) and those having strong views that are weakly held (a hedgehog).

Venkat observes that the many things the fox knows are acquired from multiple sources and that this disparate collection of knowledge is not connected together by any consistent set of core principles; the one big thing that a hedgehog knows consists of knowledge that is connected by a small set of consistent core principles.

An average developer’s knowledge of a language is very fox-like, i.e., it is culled from many particular instances with each snippet of knowledge being accompanied by the experience around which it was obtained. Back in the day, the ‘advanced’ courses I used to give to developers who had 2-3 years experience were really designed to show how the components of a language fitted together, i.e., to provide a structure to what they already knew about the language. Switching developers from an approach based on their experience of particular instances for each language feature to a rule based approach was often hard work, some developers seem to be naturally driven by itemized personal experiences.

Of necessity a compiler writer spends a lot of time studying one programming language (I’m excluding those who invent their own language as they write the compiler for it) and/or hardware cpu. This extended period of study, assuming the developer has sufficient cognitive capacity (the drop out rate is high), creates a heavily interconnected knowledge of the language in the compiler writer’s head, i.e., they understand one thing very deeply and have strong views created by the core rules they have created to organize this knowledge. These views are weakly held because experience shows that every now and again a major insight is achieved that changes the developer’s perspective completely.

This fox-like characteristic of developer language knowledge goes a long way towards explaining why religious language wars go on for so long and can be so ferocious. A fox is arguing from personal experience that is not based on a set of core principles; every point has to be argued because there is nothing connecting them, undermining one idea does not affect the status of the beliefs about anything else.

I am not arguing that being a fox is a good or a bad thing, and I am certainly not arguing that everybody should spend the huge amount of time needed to become a hedgehog (it is not a cost effective use of time). I am simply making an observation about a state of affairs, and one that is likely to continue because there are no incentives in trying to change things.

I think being a major contributor in the creation of any large and complex software system requires that somebody be or become a hedgehog.

I think that many software developers are foxes; of course to people looking in developers appear to be hedgehogs in the world of software.

Agile and the sound of one hand clapping

June 20th, 2014 3 comments

There is an interesting report out on Surrey Police’s SIREN project (Surrey Integrated Reporting Enterprise Network; a crime record storage and a data analytics software system).

The system was to be produced using an Agile methodology. The Notes in Appendix 1 highlight that one party in the development was not using Agile: “Modules are delivered in accordance with schedule and agreed Agile development methodology. However, no modules undergo formal acceptance (nether now or at any future point in the project).”

If you are the supplier on a £3.3 million software development project (the total project was £14.86 million) and the customer is not doing the work that Agile assumes will happen (e.g., use the software, provide feedback, etc) what do you do? One thing you are unlikely to do is to stop work. But what do you do?

What happened on the customer side? I imagine that those involved in software procurement at the Police did the usual thing of nodding as the buzz words were thrown at them, not really paying attention and not noticing that Agile requires them to do a lot of work throughout the development process. If I was working for Surrey Police and somebody sent me a load of software to install and beta test, without giving me the funding to do it, I would just ignore what I had been sent.

Paragraph 31 lists the grisly details of what happens when a customer has no interest in signing up to the Agile way of doing things. Or to be exact, (paragraph 91) “The Force’s corporate change and project management structures were based on the PRINCE 2 methodology.”

Paragraph 81 says something surprising “The Agile development process did not have all the necessary checks and balances to control a growth in scope as the products progressed.” Presumably this is referring to a consequence of using Agile on a fixed price contract.

Would the Police have gone down an Agile route if they had understood the work needed from them? I don’t have any figures for the customer costs of using Agile, but I suspect that initial costs will be a lot higher than a deliver everything in one installment at the end approach (the benefits being a system tuned to requirements). Also finding customer champions with the time and expertise to make new systems a success is always hard.

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Socrates 2014 unconference in the UK

June 17th, 2014 2 comments

I was at the Socrates unconference at the end of last week. An uncofrenece is a conference with no prearranged speakers, the attendees turn up and some of them volunteer to talk about a topic of their choosing on the day. The talks were structured as half a dozen parallel sessions of an hour each in rooms dotted around two different buildings.

I had previously been to half a dozen or so of the London Software Craftsmanship meetups (there is a large overlap in the organizers of the two groups) and thought I had some understanding of how the community went about building software engineering knowledge. At the end of the first day this understanding underwent a major revamp (the arts and craft movement struck me as something of a parallel).

Based on the experience of one meeting I would say that the Socrates’ community approach to achieving the goals laid out in the Manifesto for Software Craftsmanship (as exemplified by those present at unconference) is primarily a social one based on personal experiences and shared experiences communicated through meetings and pair programming (yes, pair programming).

A great deal of pair programming was constantly going on and a person’s recent experience of pairing with somebody-or-other was a perfectly natural topic to bring up in casual conversation. I have never seen this kind of widespread community practice of interaction on a detailed before; I think it is great and I hope it spreads.

I volunteered to talk Friday morning about “When is it worth investing in reducing maintenance costs?” (I now have more data than used in my blog post on the topic). The talk did not go well in the sense that while people appeared to understood the analysis they did not seem to understand why anybody would want to use the decision making approach proposed. I got the same impression from people who asked me about the topic during food breaks (I had given a lightening talk Thursday evening with about half the attendees present).

The argument I made was that improving software is an investment intended to reduce future maintenance activities; like all investments the person making it wants receive a worthwhile return on the risk they are taking. The talk derived a requirement on the investment/benefit ratio needed for a code improvement activity to at least break even.

Now I am not always the world’s greatest communicator, so peoples’ lack of understanding may have been down to poor presentation on my part. But, in the evening, thinking about everything I had seen during the day I realised that my proposal for driving code improvement decisions using an economic model ran counter to the spirit of software craftsmanship as practiced by those present. This is not to say that the software craftsman are anti-economics, but that they want to be proud of their work and require that it meet certain personal and community standards, which may mean being less than economically efficient in some cases. At your average developer conference I would have expected zero interest, but here I had made the mistake of underestimating the strong craft influence and the socially derived approach (rather than trying to use experimental evidence) to finding solutions to software engineering problems.

There were a handful of people at the meeting interested in working towards a scientific approach to obtaining solutions to software engineering problems, i.e., using evidence derived from experiments. At one of the sessions a small group of us talked about how the software craftsman community might help researchers interested in experimental research (perhaps by helping to find professional subjects or by being willing to spend time discussing industry problems). I made my usual appeal for data that could be made public.

I suspect that many software craftsman would be interested in monitoring their own performance and that it would be worthwhile providing pointers to tools and techniques that might be used. Watch this space for progress.

The most interesting session I went to was by Steve Hayes who talked about his experience of starting and running a transparent company (this involves making information that companies usually keep confidential, such as employee, public). I had read about such companies before but this was my first encounter with somebody who had done it in practice.

The event appeared to run itself very smoothly, probably as much due to the invisible hard work of the organizers as much as the more visible attendee work. I would recommend the host venue, Farncombe conference centre, to anyone wanting to run a conference with lots of breakout rooms and social spaces. The food was high quality and artistically presented, demanding that both desserts on the menu be consumed.

Anybody who is in a rush to experience a Socrates unconference can visit Germany in August (a contingent from the UK are already booked).

Source code will soon need to be radiation hardened

May 29th, 2014 2 comments

I think I have discovered a new kind of program testing that may soon need to be performed by anybody wanting to create ultra-reliable software.

A previous post discussed the compiler related work being done to reduce the probability that a random bit-flip in the memory used by an executing program will result in a change in behavior. At the moment 4G of ram is expected to experience 1 bit-flip every 33 hours due to cosmic rays and the rate of occurrence is likely to increase.

Random corrupts on communications links are protected by various kinds of CRC checks. But these checks don’t catch every corruption, some get through.

Research by Artem Dinaburg looked for, and found, occurrences of bit-flips in domain names appearing within HTTP requests, e.g., a page from the domain ikamai.net being requested rather than from akamai.net. A subsequent analysis of DNS queries to VERISIGN’S name servers found “… that bit-level errors in the network are relatively rare and occur at an expected rate.” (the 2.10^{-9} bit error rate was thought to occur inside routers and switches).

Javascript is the web scripting language supported by all the major web browsers and the source code of JavaScript programs is transmitted, along with the HTML, for requested web pages. The amount of JavaScript source can dwarf the amount of HTML in a web page; measurements from four years ago show users of Facebook, Google maps and gmail receiving 2M bytes of Javascript source when visiting those sites.

If all the checksums involved in TCP/IP transmission are enabled the theoretical error rate is 1 in 10^17 bits. Which for 1 billion users visiting Facebook on average once per day and downloading 2M of Javascript per visit is an expected bit flip rate of once every 5 days somewhere in the world; not really something to worry about.

There is plenty of evidence that the actual error rate is much higher (because, for instance, some checksums are not always enabled; see papers linked to above). How much worse does the error rate have to get before developers need to start checking that a single bit-flip to the source of their Javascript program does not result in something nasty happening?

What we really need is a way of automatically radiation hardening source code.

Oh, I did not know that [about R]

May 20th, 2014 No comments

I recently saw a post about something called ValidR and as somebody with a long standing professional interest in language validation immediately read the article and referenced links. I was disappointed to find that what was being validated was the installation, not the behavior of the implementation. In the context of what I understand ValidR’s target market to be, drug testing, obtaining reproducible results is very important and so it is necessary to know exact what software has been installed (e.g., packages and their versions).

Implementation validation involves checking that the implementation of a language adheres to the requirements specified in the appropriate language standard. While International standards exist for many of the widely used languages, some have standard’s developed through other means and some have no recognized specification at all (e.g., PHP, Perl and R).

Not having a recognized specification is a problem for PHP because there are multiple implementations in common use. Perl and R both have a dominant implementation, which means the definition of the language is accepted as being whatever that implementation does.

Now, anybody who claims that having an open source implementation is as good as having a specification written in English (i.e., people can read the code to discover the behavior) clearly have not done much, if any, reading of language implementations. Over the years I have worked with the source of a fare few language implementations and my general experience is that the fastest and most reliable way of finding out what an implementation does is to write test case, only reading the source when test cases cannot be found that answer the questions.

Does it matter that there is no complete English specification of R (the current specification is very much a work in progress, with lots of progress remaining)?

Who reads computer language specifications (apart from language wonks like me)? Creators of implementations is the most obvious answer. But an R implementation already exists, why should the R team spend time making it easier to create alternative implementations? Actually I see the main customers of an R language specification being the R-core team.

An example of the benefits to the owner of source code in having a specification is provided by the EU/Microsoft competition court case. I was an adviser to the Monitoring Trustee appointed by the Commission to oversee the documentation of the specification of these protocols (no previous documentation existed). A frequently heard comment from the senior Microsoft developers we dealt with, on reading their own new specifications, was “Oh, I did not know that”.

A written specification is much more compact than source code or test cases and is (or should be) organized in a way that helps readers understand what is being said (this is often a stated aim for source code but is rare achieved). There are probably lots of behaviors that the R team are unaware of which, if they get to find out about them, might be interested in ‘fixing’ or at least discussing whether it is a desirable behavior. Or perhaps the R team’s strategy is to make life difficult for competing implementations.

APIs can, for the time being, be copyrighted

May 11th, 2014 1 comment

There was an interesting turn of events in the Oracle vs. Google Java API lawsuit last friday. The original trial judge had ruled that an API are not copyrightable; last week the US federal Court of appeals reversed this decision, APIs are copyrightable. This legal battle is not over and the ruling can flip and flop its way up to the US supreme court, and not being a lawyer I’m happy to leave the legal discussion to others. Let’s assume that Oracle eventually win their Java API copyright claim, what does that mean for computer language usage and software developers?

If Oracle’s API copyright claim is upheld then they are potentially in line for a huge payout (Google might get to wiggle out of paying much via a fair use justification). I’m sure that some people will claim that this ‘win’ will kill off Java, even if this is true (I don’t think it is), what do the suits care? Give me a billion dollars and I will happily support the removal of any computer language from planet Earth.

In the early days of Android Google needed Java compatibility more than Java needed anything to do with Android. Now Android has such a commanding market share Google does not need to worry so much about Java compatibility. If Oracle had any interest in the future of Java they would be worried that this court case could result in Google switching the Android ecosystem to using a slightly incompatible Java-like language. In practice this court case is the only real opportunity for Oracle to make serious money from their Java intellectual property and they are not that excited about a steady stream of peanuts from future goings on.

What does Oracle winning the API copyright claim mean for developers?

If Google do launch a Java-like language then Java’s “write once run anywhere” mantra will be less true than it currently is (by avoiding a few traps and not straying too far from the well trodden path Java developers can create programs that are remarkable portable). In its market niche there is no other language that comes close to providing the kind of portability that Java offers, so existing users will be annoyed at having to worry about one more portability issue but are unlikely to jump ship.

The much more interesting question is the impact an Oracle win has on other companies producing products that include an API; they now have something to wave at competitors who have API-alike (I just made that word up) products. Any developer using an API that has its very own copyright discussion thread is likely to become a bit twitchy. The general result will be a cloud of uncertainty over some existing APIs from some providers.

Anybody introducing a new API will have to answer the ‘copyright’ question: “Do you claim copyright on your API?” In practice a very very small percentage of APIs ever get copied/cloned, because most fail or the competition comes up with what they think is a better API.

Would I care if a company claims copyright on its API and says it will sue anybody who copies/clones it? Obviously I have to use that API if it is the only way to get a job done, but what if I had a choice between it and a non-copyrighted API? I don’t think the question of copyright would be an issue for me, but I would be concerned if any company was being overly legalistic; do I really want to deal with a company more interested in legal matters than supporting developers? I think not.