Arnt Gulbrandsen
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2017-01-25

Audience and goal

Written texts have two major invisible properties: audience and goal. I can't remember who taught me about that, but I taught it to my friend Abhijit Menon-Sen when we started working together, and the texts he and I have written together over the years always have a hidden comment describing the audience(s) and goal(s) for that text. That's why those texts are crisp and to the point.

Here's an example. Not by us together, this one is his alone.

Abhijit and his girlfriend Hassath have recently built a house, it's aaaaalmost done now, and a few weeks ago Abhijit wrote a blog posting about an electric power gadget they bought for the house. The audience for that posting consists of two groups of people: Friends who want to know how the house is coming along, and people who are searching for reviews of the gadget before possibly buying one themselves. The goal for the first group is to describe the power problems and how Abhijit and Hassath are coping, and for the second group, to tell them whether and how well that particular gadget helps with that kind of power problem.

Now please read about their amazingly unreliable power supply and consider how each sentence, each paragraph and each picture helps with either or both of those goals, in the eyes of those audiences. Does a sentence say something that both audiences already know, or does it tell either or both audiences something Abhijit wants to tell them? Does a sentence help with one goal but disturb the other? What does the photo achieve? Would mentioning the audiences or goals in the text help to achieve either of the goals, or would it distract or detract?

That posting may be stylistically vapid, but it achieves Abhijit's goals and that makes it good writing. The rest is a mere question of how good.

Now please start formulating an explicit audience and goal before you write your own email, documentation, almost anything. Help save the world from pointless blather and documentation that forgets the critical points.

2016-07-21

Open source is succeeding, and rms is unhappy

This summer Dropbox released an image compression thing called Lepton, effectively a better way to encode JPEG (same principles, same pixel results, considerably better execution of various implementation aspects). Dropbox didn't have to do that. But one does nowadays, it's become part of modern programming culture. Using and releasing open source is a best practice, as the buzzword goes.

Around the same time Richard M. Stallman posted a condemnation of companies that both support free software and teach classes in use of nonfree software. Condemnation is the word he chooses, not my choice. No fraternisation with the enemy!

That enemy is us, now. The enemy is those who follow today's conventional best practices. A stealth-mode startup I am talking to has ten projects on github, because the CTO there has decided that whatever good programmers consider good is what shall be done in his realm. Most of the projects are forks, some with PRs for upstream, others described as the code in this fork isn't really suitable for upstream, but take it if you want. Good, polite behaviour, best practice indeed, and very different from the GNU purity that rms requires.

What is left of rms' following if the good programmers are declared to be enemies? The outlook for the GNU project is poor.

2015-04-07

On software architecture

It's not particularly sensible, and not related to any software architecture I deal with at the moment, but I do want to post this photograph. Nominally it's is a photo of the concrete kind of architecture, not the software kind, but doesn't it look like an enterprise-ready, flexible, feature-rich and polished staircase framework?

It's from a hotel interior, so I expect there's a lift off-camera that people use when they want to get anywhere.

2014-01-24

Eighty million polygons

Reality is eighty million polygons per second, said a weighty graphics book I read almost twenty years ago, when I was looking to draw perfect bezier curves quickly. RiscOS could, I wanted to.

Maybe that's not true any more. Reality has changed. (more…)

2013-11-18

Someone has to make the decisions

It's weasel wording and angers me. The real meaning of the statement is almost always that someone is me, and we both know I'm not particularly well qualified.

Another ancient Trolltech principle was the person who did the work had final authority over how it was done. Not exactly a result of planning — I think that principle came to be when the passion for quality clashed with the workload. A serendipitous compromise.

2013-10-29

Typing on an outsourced keyboard

I'll need to test something with a bluetooth keyboard. I really like the Nexus 7 tablet, so off to Amazon: nexus 7 2012 keyboard. Ah, hm, since I don't like QWERTZ keyboards, best try amazon.­co.uk too: nexus 7 2012 keyboard. There were many contenders, including what I bought and will return: (more…)

2013-10-17

Reviewing code and people

Some years ago an Indian friend of mine was invited to speak at a conference here. He applied for a visa, then the visa application was rejected. He got someone to phone around behind the scenes, and learned the real reason for the rejection.

The decision made sense.

My friend was an expert in his field and could easily get a job here. The fact that he was invited to speak at that conference proved his expertise, and his connections here proved that he could easily get a job. Further, my friend was single (on paper), did not have a highly paid job in India, and he was young and easily able to move. The visa application reviewer quite sensibly inferred that that my friend had the option of not returning.

The visa application reviewer used this decision matrix when processing the application:

Application accepted Application rejected
Friend planned to return Neutral None
Friend planned to overstay Negative None

This matrix leaves out the impact on the conference and on my friend, because their interests did not matter when the decision was taken. The government at the time really wanted to reduce the number of people who overstayed their visas, and almost ignored other factors when it made the decision matrix. It didn't particularly care to please my friend, or to displease him, it wanted to reduce the number of overstayers.

It's easy to curse the xenophobic so-and-sos who guard borders, but when I look at that matrix, I can understand why the reviewer decided to reject the application, if the chance of overstaying seemed even just a little above zero.

Code reviews are like that in some companies. They can be easy to curse, too.

Patch accepted Patch rejected
Patch works Neutral None
Patch is broken Negative None

Given that matrix, of course each and every meeting is more important than getting progress on the patch. Of course any minor objection is enough to block the patch or ask for another revision. Some people say things like if you haven't found any problems, you haven't reviewed properly. I think that when someone can say that with a straight face, the team is secretly using the decision matrix above.

For the next visa application my friend changed the matrix. Among other things, he arranged for a Sir Humphrey Appleby to telephone the consulate and explain that the minister hopes you will treat this young man favourably.

Application accepted Application rejected
Friend planned to return Neutral Minister displeased
Friend planned to overstay Negative Minister displeased

My friend got his visa. It's always good to have friends in the foreign ministry. It's good to have an appropriate decision matrix, too.

I have no simple hack to balance the matrix for a code review. But balance is necessary, that's one of the keys to useful code reviews. If the matrix is skewed one way, the code will stall, if the other way, it will acquire too much technical debt.

2013-09-06

Comoyo shuts down

Not interesting to very many people. But I was a contractor there, so I care, and I like to watch films, so I care.

There are two sides to this. One is internal: Comoyo was a research and development organization. That's supposed to remain so, although merged into the corporate structure instead of distinct. I don't want to go into that aspect here.

The other is public. Comoyo had a Netflix-like service for Norway and a few other countries called Comoyo View. Management (which I largely trust) says the main reason to shut that down is that the cost of purchasing content rights has increased by too much. The content owners are using their current power to squeeze prices too high and set customer-unfriendly terms. And that I think is deplorable. (more…)