At RailsConf, Sitting Around Ignoring Each Other

I’m at RailsConf. In a flagrant attempt to be one of the cool kids, I’ve set up a Flickr account to share my RailsConf Photos.

Of the few dozen conference I’ve attented, this one has the highest incidence so far of people sitting around, in large groups, working alone on their notebook computers; some of the groups are having conversations, but most of the attendees (including me, as I type this) are staring intently at their own PCs. It makes me wonder why we are all here – are we all so accustomed to interacting online that we don’t bother to interact offline, even when sitting in the same room (and at considerable expense?)

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Armin Vit, a graphic designer, described his experiences hiring out work on his home, and how he had opportunities to offer the same kinds of objection that his clients have offered: “We, of course, hated these clients too. Mocking us with their DIY, cheapskate attitude. Hated them. All of them. … Fast-forward to September 2005 and Bryony and I have become these clients. All of them.”

I can echo the experience of becoming a client. Over the last few years, we at Oasis Digital have hired out various chunks of work to subcontractors: local subcontractors, those around the country, and in a few cases, those around the world (including a few on This has been an enormously educational and enlightening experience – I personally have a much greater understanding and appreciation for what it’s like to be a client. It’s not as easy as it looks, so to speak. I believe these experience will greatly help me understand how to deliver better for our clients.

It is an experience I recommend heartily – if your main work is as a provider of services (technical or otherwise), get some expering in hiring the same kinds of services you normally provide, even if you have to make up a “fake” project. This experience will be worth far more than what it costs.

Reimplementing Good Ideas

A while back, Weiqi posted about Eric Burke‘s comments about Wikis; one point being that “WikiWordLooksStupidAndAreNotNormal”. I mostly agree with that, and the Wiki tool we’ve been using recently, MediaWiki, supports non-WikiWords trivially. Eric is working on new Wiki software that sounds quite compelling.

The notion of needing some new software with which to set up a Wiki-repository for misc. project-related information seems a little behind the times. I set such a thing seven years ago, in 1999 – and it was old news then.

I have a personal aversion to re-solving such a well solved problem; it feels like duplication, which I have deep aversion to in code, to the extent I’ve held on to this snippet from a post by Ryan King on the TDD mailing list in 2002:

“So, duplication sucks. The more rabidly a person hates duplication, the more I trust their opinions on managing information. A programmer, upon noticing some redundancy, should be thrown into a panic, begin hyperventilating, and stammer something about “¡El diablo! !El diablo está en mi software!”.”

And yet… I have done such things myself many times – for a while in my early days of programming, I implemented a text editor a couple of times each year. There’s something deeply valuable in the experience of building something yourself, I think it is a mistake to dismiss such efforts as “Not Invented Here”.

Going to RailsConf. Be wary of software religion.

I’m going to RailsConf 2006 in Chicago next month:

The interesting thing about this is that I signed up before I knew how popular it would be – it sold out in a few days, so the pent-up demand must have been remarkable. More remarkable is that it sold out long before the full list of speakers and talks was released (or even existed). Me and 500 other people didn’t even need to know what/who would be there, to decide to go. For me, that is because I have a project going that uses Rails, and I generally enjoy software conferences, and this one is close.

But maybe there is more. Is Ruby+Rails a fad? A cult? I nearly always enjoy the Ruby on Rails Podcast, but its intro music proudly and bizarrely claims that “we’re building a religion”.

I don’t know who “we” are, but I’m not on board with that.

Sutter Concurrency Talk – We Need Better Languages

I’ve seen lots of links to Herb Sutter‘s talk at PARC on concurrency. This is a great talk – I found it a little tough to make it through his paper on the topic, while the talk is a joy to experience, information-dense yet approachable. Some thoughts and notes:

  • There weren’t very many people in the audience – I’d have loved to fill one of those empty chairs.
  • He mentioned OO being invented decades ago… passed on the opportunity to mention that much of it happened right there at PARC.
  • I looked at Erlang some months ago after Joel Reymont described his experienced with it.  Erlang is worth looking at again, in depth.
  • For those of us who make a living by staying on the front slope of the adoption curve, the time is now (or past…) to build systems that run as a large number of separate threads of execution, to learn to build and use abstractions over concurrency, to run operations on a clusters of multi-CPU, multi-core PCs, etc.
  • We need to use languages that let us build new abstractions and new kinds of abstraction.  With such a language, if I wanted something like Herb’s “once {}” construct on slide 17, I could add it.

Weiqi pointed out Herb’s double-checked-locking comments.  I did in fact know that DCL was broken and is now fixed… but have generally sworn off its use anyway.  Life is too short to worry about whether we’re sure the right JVM will be used for each block of code we write.

One nit I have to pick is that the PARC site offers only an “mms://” streaming link for the video… I worked for me this time, but in general I’ve had far better results with plain old HTTP downloads and local playback, particularly if I’m not able to watch all in one sititng.