Monthly archive for November, 2012

Don’t Throw Old Books Away

2012-11-29 22:53

When moving in to a new flat just few days ago, I had to find a place for all the various IT books I’ve accumulated over the years. It’s not exactly a copious amount, but it was just enough to fill the shelves of quite big bookcase. Shuffling through them, I was surprised to find some really old ones, straight from the long forgotten era of Windows 9x.


Like these.

Many of the technologies they describe are long outdated (the different techniques for rendering 3D effects age particularly fast, for example). None of them seem to be completely phased out – you need to wait few decades for that, not just one – but I doubt they get used very much outside of maintenance of legacy systems. And definitely no one gets excited about, say, Delphi or Visual Basic now. That boat simply doesn’t float anymore, partially because its ocean – desktop platforms in general and Windows in particular – is slowly leaking away for quite some time now.

Does it mean all the books treating about those nigh-ancient subjects are little more than paper waste now? I wouldn’t be so sure. The whole purpose of IT books is far from being an up-to-date reference of anything. Bits over wire travel much faster than letters on paper, after all. It doesn’t happen very often that a developer needs to consult a book regularly, especially during a coding session. Although some timeless classics can be an exception, online documentation or sites like StackOverflow have replaced books for most intents and purposes.

Most – but not all. Some topics are better tackled practically if you first have a bit of theoretical foundation which you then iteratively refine after gaining more experience. You will finally put the book away, of course, but then you can still use it later to quickly revise your knowledge if need be. It doesn’t matter that it was standing dormant for many months or years, as long as it proves useful when there is urgent need to flip through its pages again.

What if you cannot even conceive how and when that prehistorical literature can be of any use whatsoever?… Well, I still wouldn’t be so quick with getting rid of it all. See, IT as a whole has this surprising tendency of going in circles, and periodically regurgitating old ideas into new forms and shapes. Hence the ability to generalize is important for long-term success in this field – at least the kind of success that’s more palpable than 15 minutes of Hacker News fame.

But to see patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of technology, you need have at least vague mental trace of all of them. And to verify you are not just seeing things, it’s often necessary to go back and read up again.

More often than not, that new thing will turn out to be just an old new thing.

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life, Thoughts » 1 comment

git outgoing

2012-11-20 12:05

Now that I don’t use Mercurial at work anymore, I’ve found that despite its shortcomings (hg status taking 10+ seconds?!) it has some few nice features. One of those is hg outgoing, which shows you which changesets you are going to send to remote repo in your next push. A quick glance at this list will typically ensure that everything is in order, or allow to amend some commits before making them public.

In Git you can do the similar by applying a filter to git log:

  1. $ git log origin/master..

But while origin is most often the remote you want to compare against, the master branch is typically not the one where most of development takes place. So if we want to create a git outgoing command, we would rather check what the current branch is and compare it with its remotely tracked equivalent:

  1. #!/bin/sh
  2. BRANCH=$(git name-rev HEAD 2>/dev/null | awk "{ print \$2 }")
  3. git log origin/$BRANCH..

Simply naming this script git-outgoing and making it executable somewhere within your $PATH (e.g. /usr/bin) will make the git outgoing command available:

  1. $ git outgoing
  2. commit 8c96c21c420dd10a34441cbd7d4c6904a6077716
  3. Author: Karol Kuczmarski <karol.kuczmarski@gmail.com>
  4. Date:   Tue Nov 20 11:51:44 2012 +0100
  5.  
  6.     Add .gitignore
  7.  
  8. commit 8a51a4f39b383c9dff64532403ab3922bc2ae13c
  9. Author: Karol Kuczmarski <karol.kuczmarski@gmail.com>
  10. Date:   Tue Nov 20 11:50:01 2012 +0100
  11.  
  12.     Comments in install script

There are few untold assumptions here, like the fact that branch names must match on both local and remote repo. If you find yourself breaking those, then you’re probably better to just use git log directly.

Tags: , ,
Author: Xion, posted under Programming » 3 comments

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Switzerland (Again)

2012-11-13 10:38

I had a pretty crazy period for the last week or so, and actually I still have a lot of the boring “real life” stuff to care of. Guess that’s what happens when you are switching states a little too often, at least for most practical purposes. I’m sure it will make for a good wrap-up post at the end of the year, but for now I find it a bit hectic.

Furthermore, it’s not only about getting around in a completely different country and surrounding – even considering how much the lush Dutch plains differ from alpine Switzerland. Mostly it comes to the fact that I have a lot of stuff to absorb, and make myself comfortable with, in order to get up-and-running in the new company I’ve found myself in.

So yeah, it happens that I’ve got a new job, and this one is actually pretty special. While it’s obviously about making nice and useful things technology and code, this time the scope and scale of it all is admittedly quite humbling. For the past few days of running between various different classes and talks, I feel less like a somewhat experienced developer, and more like a freshman at Hogwarts.

I hope, of course, that I will catch up on those new tricks before too long. But even if I fail to do six impossible things in the morning, I can still grab some lunch from the restaurant at the end of the universe :)

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Author: Xion, posted under Computer Science & IT, Life, Work » 1 comment

Open Source and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

2012-11-04 15:05

Some time ago, on one of the forums I got into discussion about merits and motivations of releasing projects and code as open source. Turns out that many people cannot exactly wrap their heads around the concept of giving away your code for free. Even leaving the exact meaning of ‘free’ aside (it applies to both of them), I believe we can observe a kind of cultural gap here. Strangely enough, it’s not even the case of Nerds vs. Rest of the World: the geek community is in itself somewhat divided with respect to this issue.

And that’s OK, in a way. I know it may not be obvious how value can be preserved if we just volunteer our time and skills for open source projects and don’t receive any direct compensation in return. Honestly, I’m still kinda amazed how it all works out, but I have my small theory. It’s somewhat tangential to the typical gift culture explanation, but could also shed some light on companies’ motivations for contributing to OSS.

Long story short, I think the relation dynamics between open source contributors and beneficents can be described in term of the prisoner’s dilemma: a rather classic example from the game theory. Before pursuing the analogy further, let’s have a brief look at this curious puzzle.

Of prisoners and stealing

Like the name suggests, the prisoner’s dilemma can be formulated in terms of jail, prisoners, cooperation and defection. I prefer an alternate setting, though, as it seems to better illustrate the concept and may be easier to understand. You can check the original formulation in Wikipedia, among other sources.

There is small game-theoretical difference between those two scenarios, but it’s largely irrelevant to our discussion.

Consider a two-player game with a potential reward of $100. The money can be taken by one of the players or split evenly among them. There is also a possibility of both players getting nothing. It all depends on how the players themselves decide what to do with the money.

They make independent decisions by choosing one of two options. They can decide to either split the money evenly between both of them, or steal (figuratively) the whole sum for themselves.
What happens next is the result of both decisions, revealed and applied at once:

  • If both players choose to split, the reward is indeed split evenly. Each player walks away with $50.
  • If both players choose to steal, they walk away with nothing.
  • If one players choses to steal while the other decides to split, stealer gets the whole $100. The other player walks away with nothing.

Sounds contrived?… It’s been actually tested in real life (as much as television can be called that), sometimes with dramatic results.

If you’re splitting and you know it…

What is the optimal strategy in a setting like this? If both opponents are known to be rational agents, they should arrive at the same conclusions. Because they cannot know each other’s thoughts, they both may only speculate what p_{steal} – probability that opponent steals – may be.

We know their decisions are independent, though, so p_{steal} shall remain the same regardless of what the player chooses in the end. Hence the expected values of both decisions seem to clearly indicate which one is better:

\displaystyle E[split] = 50 * (1 - p_{steal})

\displaystyle E[steal] = 100 * (1 - p_{steal})

Looks like we should simply steal and be done with it.

But wait! Since both players are rational agents, they will both arrive at the same conclusion. Moreover, each will know the other thought the same. So they both know that p_{steal} is actually 1. Unfortunately, in this case

\displaystyle E[split] = E[steal] = 0

and they will both get nothing if they follow this logic.

Pity. Or maybe it’s better to split, then? If they both do just that, each will at least get $50 instead of nothing… Yes, this looks like a much better alternative, especially that we can count on both players to apply this reasoning; they are rational agents, after all. So by this logic, they will both split and everyone will get something in the end…

Well, except that now p_{steal} is 0, so it’s actually better to steal instead. Oh, and both players know that, obviously, and are not happy about it… again. Hence they will rather split, which makes stealing more attractive option, which in turns compels splitting – and so on.

Complexity for the rescue

This example of circular meta-reasoning is unresolvable in two-player case, because a single choice will make or break the system. Fortunately, reality is much more complex, with multiple agents making countless decisions all the time.

Decisions such as, for example, whether to open source this new project, or maybe contribute to some existing one.

Just like with the situation described above, looks like the optimal choice is to “steal”: to draw liberally from the vast expanse of existing open source software while contributing nothing in return. No single such behavior would cause the whole ecosystem to crumble, so the incentive for exploitation is very tangible. Heck, it’s not even obvious what’s the steal here, because what value loss is incurred by “splitters” is not easily recognizable.

Yet it’s obvious why every party cannot apply this strategy, lest the result will be very suboptimal for everyone. Somewhere between those two extremes (everyone “splits” vs everyone “steals”) there might be the point of equilibrium: where stealers can derive maximum utility without irrevocably harming the game’s dynamics. We don’t really know where that point lies, though, so we just choose to play along and split.

 


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