Archive for January, 2017

Empirical Software Engineering using R: first draft available for download

January 29th, 2017 4 comments

A draft of my book Empirical Software Engineering using R is now available for download.

The book essentially comes in two parts:

  • statistical techniques that are useful for analyzing software engineering data. This draft release contains most of the techniques I plan to cover. I am interested in hearing about any techniques you think ought to be covered, but I only cover techniques when real data is available to use in an example,
  • six chapters covering what I consider to be the primary aspects of software engineering. This draft release includes the Human Cognitive Characteristics chapter and I am hoping to release one each of the remaining chapters every few months (Economics is next).

There is a page for making suggestions and problem reports.

All the code+data is available and I am claiming to have a copy of all the important, publicly available, software engineering data. If you know of any I don’t have, please let me know.

I am looking for a publisher. The only publisher I have had serious discussions with decided not to go ahead because of my insistence of releasing a free copy of the pdf. Self-publishing is a last resort.

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Full Fact checking of number words

January 22nd, 2017 2 comments

I was at the Full Fact hackathon last Friday (yes, a weekday hackathon; it looked interesting and interesting hackathons have been very thin on the ground in the last six months). Full Fact is an independent fact checking charity; the event was hosted by Facebook.

Full Fact are aiming to check facts in real-time, for instance tweeting information about inaccurate statements made during live political debates on TV. Real-time responses sounds ambitious, but they are willing to go with what is available, e.g., previously checked facts built up from intensive checking activities after programs have been aired.

The existing infrastructure is very basic, it is still early days.

Being a numbers person I volunteered to help out analyzing numbers. Transcriptions of what people say often contains numbers written as words rather than numeric literals, e.g., eleven rather than 11. Converting number words to numeric literals would enable searches to made over a range of values. There is an existing database of checked facts and Solr is the search engine used in-house, this supports numeric range searches over numeric literals.

Converting number words to numeric literals sounds like a common problem and I expected to be able to choose from a range of fancy Python packages (the in-house development language).

Much to my surprise, the best existing code I could find was rudimentary (e.g., no support for fractions or ranking words such as first, second).

spaCy was used to tokenize sentences and decide whether a token was numeric and text2num converted the token to a numeric literal (nltk has not kept up with advances in nlp).

I quickly encountered a bug in spaCy, which failed to categorize eighteen as a number word; an update was available on github a few hours after I reported the problem+fix :-). The fact that such an obvious problem had not been reported before suggests that few people are using this functionality.

Jenna, the other team member writing code, used beautifulsoup to extract sentences from the test data (formatted in XML).

Number words do not always have clear cut values, e.g., several thousand, thousands, high percentage and character sequences that could be dates. Then there are fraction words (e.g., half, quarter) and ranking words (e.g., first, second), all everyday uses that will need to be handled. It is also important to be able to distinguishing between dates, percentages and ‘raw’ numbers.

The UK is not the only country with independent fact checking organizations. A member of the Chequeado, in Argentina, was at the hack. Obviously number words will have to handle the conventions of other languages.

Full Fact are looking to run more hackathons in the UK. Keep your eyes open for Hackathon announcements. In the meantime, if you know of a good python library for handling word to number conversion, please let me know.

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The future evolutionary cycle of application software?

January 13th, 2017 No comments

At some time in the future (or perhaps it has already happened) all the features needed (by users) in a widely used application will have been implemented in that application. Once this point is reached, do the software developers involved go off and do something else (leaving a few behind to fix lingering faults)? This is not good news for software developers, perhaps they should continue adding features and hope that users don’t notice.

When the application is a commercial product there is every incentive for new releases to be driven by income from upgrades rather than user needs. When users stop paying for upgrades it is time to shift to renting the application in the cloud rather than selling licenses.

With an Open Source application most of the development may be funded commercially or may be funded by the enjoyment that the primary developers obtain from what they do. For renting to be a viable option, a major service components needs to be included, e.g., Github offers hosting along with the use of Git.

Halting development on commercial products is easy, it happens automatically when paying customers drop below the cost of development. Work on Open Source is not so easily halted. The enjoyment from writing software is does not rely on external funding, it is internally generated (having other people use your software is always a buzz and is a kind of external funding).

If the original core developers of an Open Source project move onto something else and nobody takes over, the code stops changing. However, this might only be the death of one branch, not the end of the road for development of what the application does. Eventually another developer decides it would be fun to reimplement the application in their favorite language. An example of this in Asciidoc (a document formatter), where the core developer decided to terminate personal involvement at the end of 2013 (a few people are making local updates to their own copies of the source, at least according to the Github fork timeline). Another developer appeared on the scene and decided to reimplement the functionality in Ruby, Asciidoctor.

Reimplementation of a tool in another language is a surprisingly common activity. There is a breed of developers who thinks that programs written in the language currently occupying their thoughts are magically better than the same program written in another language. At the moment Rust is an easy entanglement for those needing a language to love.

Over time, it will become harder and harder to install and run Asciidoc, because the ecosystem of libraries it depends on have evolved away from the behavior that is relied on. AsciiDoctor will become the default choice because it works on the available platforms. Eventually the core developer of AsciiDoctor will terminate his personal involvement; and then? Perhaps somebody will step forward to maintain the Ruby version or perhaps somebody will decide to reimplement in another language and around we go again.

The evolutionary cycle of software in the future is starting to look like it well be:

  1. developer(s) with enthusiasm and time on their hands, reimplement an application, (which is itself version n-1 of that application), in the language they love
  2. time passes and users accumulate, while the developer(s) actively supports application_n,
  3. those involved terminate involvement in supporting application_n,
  4. more time passes, during which the software ecosystem that applications+n depends on changes,
  5. successfully installing and running application_n is now so difficult that most users have migrated to application_(n+1).

Of course users will complain, but they don’t count in the world of Open Source (the role of users in Open Source is to provide adulation from which the core developers can extract sustenance).

Understanding where one academic paper fits in the plot line

January 1st, 2017 No comments

Reading an academic paper is rather like watching an episode of a soap opera, unless you have been watching for a while you will have little idea of the roles played by the actors and the background to what is happening. A book is like a film in that it has a beginning-middle-end and what you need to know is explained.

Sitting next to somebody who has been watching for a while is a good way of quickly getting up to speed, but what do you do if no such person is available or ignores your questions?

How do you find out whether you are watching a humdrum episode or a major pivotal moment? Typing the paper’s title into Google, in quotes, can provide a useful clue; the third line of the first result returned will contain something like ‎’Cited by 219′ (probably a much lower number, with no ‘Cite by’ meaning ‘Cite by 0′). The number is a count of the other papers that cite the one searched on. Over 50% of papers are never cited and very recently published papers are too new to have any citations; a very few old papers accumulate thousands of citations.

Clicking on the ‘Cited by’ link will take you to Google Scholar and the list of later episodes involving the one you are interested in. Who are the authors of these later episodes (the names appear in the search results)? Have they all been written by the author of the original paper, i.e., somebody wandering down the street mumbling to himself? What are the citation counts of these papers? Perhaps the mumbler did something important in a later episode that attracted lots of attention, but for some reason you are looking at an earlier episode leading up to pivotal moment.

Don’t be put off by a low citation count. Useful work is not always fashionable and authors tend to cite what everybody else cites.

How do you find out about the back story? Papers are supposed to contain a summary of the back story of the work leading up to the current work, along with a summary of all related work. Page length restrictions (conferences invariably place a limit on the maximum length of a paper, e.g., 8 or 10 pages) mean that these summaries tend to be somewhat brief. The back story+related work summaries will cite earlier episodes, which you will then have to watch to find out a bit more about what is going on; yes, you guessed it, there is a rinse repeat cycle tracing episodes further and further back. If you are lucky you will find a survey article, which summarizes what is known based on everything that has been published up to a given point in time (in active fields surveys are published around every 10 years, with longer gaps in less active fields), or you will find the authors PhD thesis (this is likely to happen for papers published a few years after the PhD; a thesis is supposed to have a film-like quality to it and some do get published as books).

A couple of points about those citations you are tracing. Some contain typos (Google failing to return any matches for a quoted title is a big clue), some cite the wrong paper (invariable a cut-and-paste error by the author), some citations are only there to keep a referee happy (the anonymous people chosen to review a paper to decide whether it is worth publishing have been known to suggest their own work, or that of a friend be cited), some citations are only listed because everybody else cites them, and the cited work says the opposite of what everybody claims it says (don’t assume that just because somebody cites a paper that they have actually read it; the waterfall paper is the classic example of this).

After a week or two you should be up to speed on what is happening on the soap you are following.

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