Monday, April 25, 2011

The Joy of Spring

Pollen season came early this year, and with all the wind, even the periodic rain has not been able to clear the air.  It acts as a force multiplier for all the other annoyances that occur in a normal day.  I say this, not to complain, but rather to provide some context for this image, which amuses me.

(Picture caption retained out of courtesy to the hosting site, with which I have no affiliation.)

Nanotech A-Go-Go

Here are a couple of wildly different stories that show a potential future benefits as our ability to examine and manipulate matter at microscopic scales improves.

The first involves plastic made not from petroleum, but from plant fibers.  Plastics made from "nano-cellulose" fibers can be several times stronger than similar plastics while being around a third lighter.  Potentially even more importantly, in addition to being totally renewable the plant based substance is biodegradable.  Though the researchers are currently targeting automotive applications, it isn't too big a leap to imagine a world where you throw your spent drink bottle into the mulch pile rather than the recycle bin.

Second, a potential weapon in the quest to replace increasingly ineffective antibiotics.  Now biology isn't my field, but if I'm reading this correctly, researchers are working on substances that can attack bacterial cells physically rather than chemically (though at the scales we are talking that distinction is a blurry one) which should be much harder for the bacteria to develop a resistance toward.  In other words, our poisons are beginning to stop working, so we are switching to knives.  They have designed synthetic, charged polymers which can break open the cell walls of bacteria, killing them.  So far the compounds are showing promise against several forms of antibiotic resistant bacteria, including the current media darling methicillin resistant staph (MRSA).

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Guitar + Harmony = Awsome

One man, one woman, one guitar, one mesmerizing song.  This is the studio version, the live ones are well worth checking out too, as is the entire album.  This might even be a decent excuse for me to finally try out the drop D tuning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Solving the Programming Professional Name Debate

Science is to Computer Science as Hydrodynamics is to Plumbing
unattributed aphorism from the Fortune program which I first saw in the mid 90s.

People who have devoted their lives, or at least their professional lives, to writing computer programs seem to be caught up in a continual debate about how to express what we do for a living.  Everyone seems to have their favorite analogy about what our field actually involves.  Are we best described as engineersdeveloperscraftsmenartistsarchitects? writers? farmers? oysters accreting software pearls? construction workers?1  Frankly, I'm tired of it all.  Like so many other political debates going on right now, the debaters are telling you more about what they want than the reality of the issue.  People who say creating software is an engineering discipline are actually saying they want creating software to be an engineering discipline.  It is high time we stop defining ourselves based on the models for other professions.

Naturally, you will want to know how my method for describing people who write software differs from every other person's.  It's simple.  I'm dropping the analogies.  They clearly don't work.  Computer science isn't science, and software engineering isn't engineering.  That's not to say that we can't take lessons from both science and engineering methods, I certainly do so every day, whether it's isolating variables during debugging like I did back in lab class or doing stress/load testing like a materials engineer.  The lessons are freely available to us without needing to take their roles and titles as well.

If we are to stop defining programmers by what we aren't, we have to examine what we are.  When you sit down to design and implement software, no matter the domain, platform, or language, the basis remains the same: algebra, Boolean logic, and symbolic logic.  All computer programs are nothing more than numbers being manipulated.  All those grand designs, all those layers of abstraction, they are just there to allow us to give context and meaning to those numbers.

Now, maybe you are feeling a frisson of fear.  Deep in your hind-brain the instinct for fight of flight is building up.  You know deep down what I'm about to say, and you really don't want to hear it.  But it's there.  People who write software are... mathematicians.  Wait, don't go!  It's applied math!

Yes, I am being overly dramatic to make the point, but when you sit down and seriously think about it, can you really argue against programmers being first and foremost mathematicians?  But it really starts to become interesting when you think about what being mathematicians implies.  Could changing the titles we use in our jobs away from the ones used now help us as a group?  If the code is all just math, how does that make us look at the different roles within the profession?  Would the attitudes of managers change if they had a department of mathematicians writing software rather than a department of engineers?  What about HR departments and recruiters?  If software is written by mathematicians rather than engineers, what does that say about the need for, or the processes of, designing professional credentials and/or certifications?  Does acknowledging that it's all math allow us to come up with better methods and/or processes for our work?

Defining ourselves by analogy really is a perfectly natural thing for software people to do.  After all, we spend all our days writing programs that model other domains, other jobs, other tasks.  But I really do wonder if there would be a benefit to moving beyond defining programming by comparison to other things.

[1] The last four analogies are from chapter 2 of my favorite book about programming, Code Complete 2 by Steve McConnell.

Growth Isn't Everything, Are People are Beginning to Notice?

Mike Taylor over on The Reinvigorated Programmer posted his thoughts on one of my favorite issues, how growth driven markets aren't necessarily a good thing.  I will not say any more on the subject today, mainly because I don't want to ruin my good mood, but also since I've been on this soapbox since at least 2006.  Happily, the more people that start writing about this stuff, the more brains will be applied to coming up with a solution.