Monday Links 2

Every Monday I’ll try and post links to articles or videos I’ve found interesting and useful. Today’s links are tenuously held together by Rails.

The Optics of Pair Programming is an insightful post by Eric Bailey on pair programming and the aspects of context and culture that make it successful or a working hell.

I heard about Eric Bailey’s post on The Bike Shed podcast, a consistently good listen, and my main way of keeping up with the Rails ecosystem. This week’s episode touched on how enforcing opinions in linters can lead to less readable code, especially in tests. I was reminded of this classic comment from John Carmack, looking back on an email he’d written seven years before:

The real enemy addressed by inlining is unexpected dependency and mutation of state, which functional programming solves more directly and completely. However, if you are going to make a lot of state changes, having them all happen inline does have advantages; you should be made constantly aware of the full horror of what you are doing. When it gets to be too much to take, figure out how to factor blocks out into pure functions (and don.t let them slide back into impurity!).

My first ever Rails project was Digital NZ. I was lucky work interact with folks from the National Library, including Courtney Johnston, who is now Tumu Whakara at Te Papa. Courtney recently revived her blog where she writes about art, culture, books, and all sorts of other things. It’s well worth adding Courtney’s blog to your feed reader.

This one simple 600-year-old trick makes your website more accessible - Nick Piesco at !!Con

‘Accessibility and the Web’ sounds like a thoroughly modern set of challenges, but it includes problems that people have been trying to solve for hundreds of years.

In mediæval times, a knight being able to recognise a friend or foe at a distance was a matter of life and death. Rules evolved around the coats of arms they bore to make identifying each other easier, giving birth to the science of heraldry. The most important one of those rules is around colour contrast.

My buddy Nick Piesco talks about why colour contrast is so important to accessibility, and he takes us on a whirlwind tour through the history of heraldry before showing how rules that originated on the tournament ground inform our best practices here in the 21st century.

This is a shorter version of Nick’s talk. The slides for the full talk are on Speaker Deck.

Fighting Fantasy Combat in Twine

August marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first volume of the Fighting Fantasy series which combined elements of table-top roleplaying games and Choose Your Own Adventure style books.

Firetop Mountain is notorious for its maze. I spent many hours as a child trying to map that maze and somehow fluked my way out of it. I’ve also “played” Firetop Mountain with both of my children. My son gave up in the maze. My daughter and I got through it and even killed the Warlock, but didn’t get any treasure. I think I put them off RPGs for life.

What has this got to do with programming or continuous improvement or engineering management? Good question! I’ll get to the point.

I follow Rands’s advice in Bored People Quit: “don’t forget what it’s like to build a thing.” So I’ll try to spend some time building little things with different tools, either learning something new or improving and building on what I already know.

I’ve been curious about the Twine, a tool for making interactive fiction. How complex a gamecan you make? How hard is it to do something more than just Choose Your Own Adventure style games? I decided to have a crack at implementing the combat found in Firetop Mountain.

Continue reading →

Monday Links 1

Every Monday I’ll try and post links to articles or videos I’ve found interesting and useful. Today’s post is mostly about explaining things.

Dave Farley reviews Team Topologies.

Team Topologies is important, and adds a significant piece to the jigsaw puzzle of how to build great software.

Simon Willison asks GTP-3 to explain code and finds it to be “shockingly effective”. Willison’s examples include Python, Javascript, creating tables and querying them with SQL, a config file, and mathematical equations. If you’ve ever looked at your own code and wondered “what was I thinking?”, AI might be able to tell you.

That said, Willison notes that GPT-3 doesn’t actually “know” anything, it’s just really good at looking like it does, and we should keep that in mind before asking GPT-3 something like “which is better?”

Once again, I’m reminded that tools like GPT-3 should be classified in the “bicycles for the mind” category. You still have to know how to pedal!

They’re fantastic tools for thinking, but to actually use their output effectively requires VERY deep knowledge—both of the subject matter in question, and of the way that the AI tools themselves work.

Also Simon Willison in the b3ta newsletter:

Using these AIs feels more like spellcasting than programming: no-one, not even the creators, fully understands how they work or what they can do and you get better at them by accumulating weird new incantations that might lead to better results. Or unleash demons if you type something wrong.

And speaking of explaining things, Julia Evans has some excellent advice on how to avoid confusing folks when you’re trying to explain technical things.

[…]knowing that I’m likely to accidentally do these things makes it easier for me to avoid them, and it makes me more receptive to critique when people point out issues with my writing (“Julia, this is assuming a lot of knowledge that I don’t have!“).

Being aware of these patterns also helps me when reading a confusing explanation: “oh, I’m not confused by this explanation because I’m stupid, I’m confused because it’s introduced 6 new-to-me concepts and it hasn’t explained what any of them is yet!“.

Pushing Through Friction, a talk by Daniel Na

Every Friday I post a video related to one of the themes of this site. This week it’s a talk by Daniel Na about pushing through organisational friction to get important work done.

What is organisational friction? Daniel’s description says it best:

As a senior-level engineering leader, experience tells you things could be better. You see the gaps. If only the company adopted policy A or dumped technology B, everyone would benefit. But there’s so much inertia. The company has always used B. You are frustrated. Can you actually make a difference? Yes. You are encountering organizational friction, and learning to identify, accept and push through friction is a key skill of engineering leaders.

The slides for the talk are on Daniel Na’s website.