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.

Infinitely Extensible Projects

2012-10-23 14:10

When diving into new language, or radically different framework, it may be a good idea to have a bigger project where you can apply your newfound skills. In my experience, this is typically better than having a lot of smaller ones, because it minimizes the hassle of project’s initial setup. Therefore, it encourages you to experiment more.

To reap the largest benefits of this approach, the project of choice should exhibit two important properties:

  • It must be easy to get started. Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean a complete programming newbie should be able to code the initial scaffolding in one session. But getting started must be easy for you specifically, so that you can dabble in interesting stuff almost right away.
    What it means exactly is dependent on your overall coding experience, and also on comparative difficulty of whatever you are trying to learn. For those taking their first steps in programming as a whole, extending their first Hello world program might be appropriate. However, if you are learning your fourth of fifth language you can aim for something a tad more ambitious.
  • It should offer practically infinite possibilities of extension. The idea is for the project to grow along with skills and knowledge you acquire, enabling you to try ever more things.
    In normal development, this typically results in feature creep and is best avoided. But experimental, exploratory, educational coding does not really have to be concerned with such notions. Of course, if you can pack your learning experiences into a usable program then double kudos to you.

What types of projects fit into this characteristic? I’d say quite a lot of them.

When I was honing my Python skills, I started programming an IRC bot so that I could cram a few ideas into it rather quickly. They were implemented mostly as commands that users could input and have the bot perform some actions, like searching Wikipedia for any given term.
A similar pattern (collection of mostly independent commands) can be realized in many different scenarios. Aspiring web programmers could come up with something like a YubNub clone (bonus points if it allows users to add their own commands). Complete coding novices would probably have to resort to simple, menu-based programs in terminal instead.

Another option is to attack a problem which is a very broad and/or vague. Text editors, for example, fuel countless discussions (even wars) over what functionality should they contain and how it should be accessible in the UI. Chances are slim that your take on the problem sprouts a new Emacs or Vim, but a home-brewed editor is easy enough to start and obviously extensible, almost without limits. Additionally, editors can fit into pretty much any environment, from terminals to desktop UIs or HTML5 applications.

Some endeavors are a bit more specific, though. In web development, a CMS or blogging engine became something of a timeless classic now. Everyone has written one at some point, and there’s a lot of additional (thought not always useful) functionality that can be added to it. Getting the basics right is also a challenge here, especially from security standpoint.

For mobile app creators, the infamous To-Do list app is an idea exercised ad nauseam. But it’s actually a good playground for toying with various device capabilities (e.g. location-based reminders) or web services (like Google or iCloud calendar).


I’m pretty sure I’m far from exhausting the list of possibilities here. I cannot really speak for domains I have little-to-no experience with, for example embedded or hardware-oriented programming with equipment such as Arduino.

It should be possible to come up with infinitely extensible projects for almost every environment and platform, though. After all, every program has always one more feature to add ;)

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Author: Xion, posted under Applications, Programming » Comments Off on Infinitely Extensible Projects

Yummy YAML

2012-10-15 19:48

It won’t be a stretch to bet that you’ve heard of XML. The infamous markup format was intended to be easily parseable by machines, in addition to being readable by humans. Needless to say, it failed to deliver on either of these promises. Markup elements tend to obscure the actual data, while parsing it – with all its namespaces, !DOCTYPEs and ![CDATA[s – is convoluted and not exactly efficient.

Other formats have thus risen to popularity, out of which JSON is probably widest known and used. It also has excellent support on many platforms.

For the purpose of transporting data between Internet endpoints, or for various APIs offered by websites and services, it works pretty great. There are other applications, though, where it might be the obvious first choice – but not necessarily the best one.

What JSON does well is ease to read and parse: the syntax can be outlined and defined in few paragraphs. However, at the same it’s not that convenient to write.

Unlike actual JavaScript, it needs quotes around keynames, even if they would pass as identifiers. (And by quotes I mean double-quotes, also where apostrophes would be better). Furthermore, it requires keeping track of separators between key-value pairs or array elements, not allowing to have a handy trailing comma at the end.

And lastly, there is no good support for longer texts due to lack of multi-line string literals.

Enter YAML

There is another, lesser known format which addresses these concerns very well. It’s called YAML, recursively from YAML Ain’t Markup Language. Here’s a short sample:

  1. name: John Smith
  2. birth date:
  3.   day: 10
  4.   month: 11
  5.   year: 1982
  6. phone:
  7. - type: mobile
  8.   number: 1123581321
  9. - type: work
  10.   number: 0918237465
  11. friends:
  12. - Robert Jones
  13. - Jane Taylor

At first sight it probably appears as pythonic (or haskellish) counterpart to the C-like JSON. Indentation does indeed matter, at least in the most popular and powerful variant of YAML syntax.

However, giving this bit of significance to whitespace allows to substantially reduce syntactic clutter. There are no curly or square brackets, and no commas. For the most part, there’s not much use for quotes either: strings are easily recognized as both keys and values, even if they contain spaces. Arrays are also supported in a straightforward way: by listing their elements with a leading dash (-), including cases where they are key-value objects themselves.

There’s even support for long strings that span multiple lines:

  1. almost_limerick: |  
  2.     There once was a man from the sticks
  3.     Who liked to compose limericks.
  4.         But he failed at the sport,
  5.         For he wrote 'em too short.

Here, pipe character (|) instructs parsers to preserve newlines and most of the whitespace, excluding the leading indent. Were it replaced with greater-than sign (>), an HTML-like fold would be performed, converting chains of whitespace into a single space.

Parsing the thing

Simple YAML documents represent a tree of keys and values which is much the same as the one produced from JSON files. For some programming languages, this similarity extends to the parsing libraries, as they offer more or less the same interface:

  1. def parse_file(path, parser):
  2.     with open(path, 'r') as f:
  3.         return parser.load(f)
  5. import json, yaml
  6. print parse_file('data.json', parser=json)
  7. print parse_file('data.yaml', parser=yaml)

Even if it’s not the case for your language, it’s quite likely there is a YAML parser readily available.

More features

Funny thing about YAML is that its glaringly simple syntax hides very powerful and flexible format.

For example, the values are actually typed. They can be strings or nulls, but also integers, floats or booleans. Syntactic rules make a very good job here at automatically detecting the types; for instance, the word Yes will be recognized as boolean truth if standing on its own, but a text starting with it will be correctly recognized as string.

The other nifty feature is referencing. Parts of YAML document tree can be given labels, while other parts can later use those labels to point back to specific nodes. The whole structure can therefore morph into something more general than just a tree:

  1. triangle_graph: &first_vertex
  2. - label: First vertex
  3.   adjacent_to:
  4.   - label: Second vertex
  5.     adjacent_to:
  6.     - label: Third vertex
  7.       adjacent_to:
  8.      - *first_vertex

With types (incl. custom ones) and references, YAML can actually serve pretty well as serialization format for persisting objects.


But besides that, what YAML is actually good for?

I have hinted in the beginning that it seems like a decent choice for structured text data which is meant to be hand-edited. Various configuration files fall into this category, as well as some datasets around the size of contact list. I used YAML as config format for my IRC bot and it worked very well for this purpose. I’m also using it to store initialization data for database used by another side project of mine.

So, if you are not exercising YAML in any of your current endeavors, I’m encouraging you to give it a try. It might not be the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s very pleasant format to work with.

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Author: Xion, posted under Applications, Programming » 2 comments

Windows 8 Is Coming and I Don’t Care

2012-10-09 19:56

The upcoming release of Windows 8 is stirring up the tech world, mostly because of some controversial decisions Microsoft has made regarding the new version of their flagship OS.

Were it a few years ago, I would likely participate in various discussions about this, springing up on message boards I typically frequent. Probably I would have also tested the development preview which was made available several months before. Most likely, I would have clear opinion about viability of the new Metro UI, WinRT apps’ platform or the overall push in the general direction of HTML5.

I would… But I do not. Actually, I couldn’t care less about the whole thing.

It’s not only because I touch my Windows installation once in a blue moon, almost exclusively for gaming. No, that’s mostly because it’s 2012, and Windows still doesn’t support some crucial functionality you could expect from modern operating system.

Unfortunately, most users don’t expect it because they never knew any better. Therefore I will try to highlight some features from alternative operating systems (typically Linux or OSX) that I think Windows can be rightfully scorned for lacking.

Unintended Consequences

2012-10-02 12:13

In Unix-like systems, files and directories with names starting from ‘.’ (dot) are “hidden”: they don’t appear when listed by ls and are not shown by default in graphical file browsers. It doesn’t seem very clear why there is such a mechanism, especially when we have extensive chmod permissions and attributes which are not tied to filename. Actually, that’s one of distinguishing features of Unix/Linux: there are neither .exe nor .app files, just chmod +x.

But, here it is: name-based visibility control for files and directories. Why such a thing was ever implemented in the first place? Well, it turns out it was purely by accident:

Long ago, as the design of the Unix file system was being worked out, the entries . and .. appeared, to make navigation easier. (…) When one typed ls, however, these entries appeared, so either Ken [Thompson] or Dennis [Ritchie] added a simple test to the program. It was in assembler then, but the code in question was equivalent to something like this:

  1. if (name[0] == '.') continue;

That test was meant to filter out . and .. only. Unintentionally, though, it ruled out a much bigger class of names: all that start with a dot, because that’s what it actually checked for. Back then it probably seemed like an innocuous detail. Fast-forward a couple of decades and it’s a de facto standard for storing program-specific data inside user’s home path. They can grow quite numerous over time, too:

  1. $ ls -A1 ~ | grep '^\.' | wc -l
  2. 113

That’s over 100 entries, a vast majority of my home directory. It’s neither elegant nor efficient to have that much of app-specific cruft inside the most important place in the filesystem. And even if GUI applications tend to collectively use a single ~/.config directory, the tradition to clutter the root $HOME path is strong enough to persist for foreseeable future.

Heed this as a warning. In the event your software becomes a basis for many derived solutions, future programmers will exploit every corner case of every piece of logic you have written. It doesn’t really matter what you wanted to put into your code, but only what you actually did.

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Author: Xion, posted under Programming » 3 comments

Singleton is Bad Example

2012-09-20 16:59

Design patterns are often criticized, typically in the context of object-oriented programming. I buy into many such critiques, mostly because I value simplicity as one of the most important qualities of good code. Patterns – especially when overused – often stand in the way to achieve it,

Not all critique aimed towards design patterns is well founded and targeted, though. More specifically, the example I’ve seen brought up quite often is the Singleton pattern, and I don’t think it’s a good one in this context. Actually, for making a case for design patterns being (sometimes) harmful, the singleton is probably one of the worst picks.
Realizing this is important, because whatever point you’re trying to convey will be significantly watered down if you use an inadequate example. It’s just too easy to make up counterarguments or excuses, concentrating on specific flaws of your sloppy choice, rather than addressing more general issues you wanted to put some light on. A bad example can simply be a red herring, drawing attention from the topic you wanted it to stand for.

What’s so bad about singleton pattern, though?

It’s not representative

Especially in their classic incarnation formulated in famous work of Gang of Four, design patterns are mostly about increasing robustness and flexibility of software design by introducing additional layers of indirection between existing concepts. For instance, you can consider the Factory pattern as proxy that separates the process of creating an object from specific type (class) of that object.

This goes along the same lines as separation between interface and implementation, a fundamental concept behind the whole object-oriented paradigm. The purpose is to decrease coupling, i.e. dependencies between different parts of the code, and it’s noble goal in its own regard.

Unfortunately, the Singleton pattern doesn’t really aid us in this pursuit. Quite the opposite: it talks about having at most one single instance of some class, which will easily make it a choke point for many otherwise independent parts of program logic. It happens especially often with top-level objects, representing whole subsystems; thanks to making them into singletons, they end up being used almost everywhere.

It has lots of its own problems

We also shouldn’t forget what singletons really are – that is, global variables. (You can have singletons with more limited scope, of course, but OO languages typically support them as language feature that doesn’t require dedicated design pattern). The pattern attempts to abstract them away but they tend to leak out rather eagerly, causing numerous problems.
Indeed, there are all sorts of nastiness related to global variables, with these two being – in my opinion – the most important ones:

  • They play badly when concurrency is involved. Global state is the prime cause of difficulties in concurrent programming, which is why one of the possible solutions is just doing away with state altogether (see functional programming). Regardless whether you are willing to go to such extremes, it’s indisputable that global variables in concurrent setting are liability to be minimized, if not straight out eliminated.
  • They complicate automated testing. Modules that use global variables cannot really be unit tested, because they have (implicit) interdependencies with other parts of the code that use them. More importantly, it can be hard to replace global singletons with their mocked (“fake”) versions for the purpose of testing.

It is worth noting that these problems are somewhat language-specific. In several programming languages, you can relatively easily create “global” variables which are only apparent; in reality, they proxy to thread-local and/or mockable objects, addressing both concerns outlined above.
However, in such languages the Singleton pattern is often obsolete as explicit technique, because they readily provide it as part of the language. For example, Python module objects are already singletons: their singularity is guaranteed by interpreter itself.

Try something else

So, if you are to discuss the merits of software design patterns: pros and (specifically) cons, make sure you don’t base your whole argumentation on the example of Singleton. Accuracy, integrity and honesty would require choosing a target which is more representative and has no severe, unrelated issues.

Something like, say, Iterator. Or Factory. Or Composite.
Or pretty much anything else.


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