The Philosopher Developer

half-sound logic, half-decent code

I demand smarter tools
January 04, 2014

I find myself growing more and more passionate about the idea that we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to building intelligent tools that can and should amplify our capacity as human beings. If a person can figure something out, then it should be possible for a machine to figure it out. It just takes a human brain with the insight and determination to program that machine with the right rules.

The itch of asm.js

I think the seed was planted when I read Vyacheslav Egorov’s thoughts on asm.js. Something had rubbed me the wrong way about asm.js1 for a while but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. If I had to pick an excerpt from Egorov’s post that best sums it up for me, I suppose it would be this:

This might sound weird and hyperbolic, but for me pattern matching a statically typed subset inside JavaScript before exhausting all other possibilities is equal to giving up my pride as a compiler engineer.

I feel a related itch whenever the topic of software performance...

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Expertise and perfectionism can be a deadly mix
October 22, 2013

I used to be a bit of a perfectionist. I suppose I still am in many respects1. But an interesting trend I’ve noticed about myself is that the more expertise I develop in an area, the less of a perfectionist I become.

I think this is a necessary adaptation. When you’re new to a field, you tend not to notice things that are wrong. You don’t even know what “wrong” is, a lot of the time. But as you develop a clearer, deeper understanding of a subject, your ability to see flaws is sharpened. Gradually, everything seems wrong for one reason or another.

In this predicament—having a heightened perception of flaws—a perfectionist has two choices: try to fix them, or look past them. To fix them is sort of like taking the high road, in my mind; and it can be a noble choice. Often, the only ones who can fix something are expert perfectionists, with the knowledge to understand the job and the determination to actually do it.

Personally, I often choose the low road. And I believe that’s the right...

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The absence of disproof is not proof
October 11, 2013

Here’s a mistake people often make: thinking that the absence of any obvious disproof is the same thing as proof.

I took a class in college called Gender and Language. It was sort of a sociology-meets-linguistics course. One of the first points our professor made was a theory about the concept of feminism and why it is, compared to what you might expect, a relatively controversial issue. (I think most of us have met people with a negative reaction to the word “feminist”; or anyway, I certainly have.)

The professor asserted that this perception issue could be explained by the word feminist itself: “All other -ist and -ism words are negative in their connotations,” she told us. “Racist, sexist, anarchist, fascism, communism, nihilism, antisemitism”—and she went on for a bit. Then she briefly challenged us to think of any exceptions; and when none sprang to anyone’s mind right away, we moved on.

Of course, later that day some very obvious exceptions starting popping into my head: idealist

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Carousels, context, and judgment
August 06, 2013

I recently had a brief1 online exchange with Matt Copeland, a former coworker at ThoughtWorks, about the website It’s a fun little site presenting several bullet points against the use of carousels (rotating banners) in website UIs2.

I’m no designer or UX expert. Over the years I’ve noticed that I do seem to take a greater interest in frontend-y stuff than most other developers I work with; but that’s a far cry from someone with expertise in user experience. Still, when Matt first posted a link to the carousel-bashing site I found myself responding skeptically. Of course, maybe that’s because I respond skeptically to pretty much everything that exists in this world.

Anyway, this shall be my attempt to explain my skepticism, concisely if I can (but knowing me, I probably can’t).

Judgments require context

Consider this point:

A point with no context
A point with no context

Where is it? To answer that question we need some frame of context, or reference. For example, we could define...

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Problem obsession
July 11, 2013

My last course as a grad student at CMU was Entrepreneurship for Software Engineers, in which teams of students basically worked on startup ideas for one semester, sharing their progress and collecting feedback during each class session and presenting to a small group of VC reps at the end of the term. I worked on a silly little app called InstaPie–which I haven’t touched in months (mainly because I don’t have an Apple computer anymore!), though I do plan to pick it back up soon, I swear—and I remember during my presentation to the VCs, one of them asked, “What problem are you trying to solve here?”

This wasn’t my first exposure to the question, of course. We’d been taught to always keep this question in our crosshairs, to not lose sight of the goal. Identifying the problem and proposing a solution is an important part of any elevator pitch, I hear. If you can’t answer that question, then you’ve lost your way somehow. Start retracing your steps until you get back to the place where...

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Hero culture vs. Borg culture
June 14, 2013

Most of us in software (and probably in other fields) know about hero culture. It’s a concept everybody loves to hate. The term refers to an environment where individuals work in isolation and thrive on receiving sole credit for their work. This is generally perceived as leading to inflated egos and poor cooperation among developers. It’s the same phenomenon you see in professional sports, when star athletes are sometimes accused of not being good “team players” and getting greedy with the ball, wanting to be the center of attention.

So there are social reasons to dislike hero culture. There are plenty of practical reasons, too. One involves a principle known as the bus factor: the more you rely on a hero, the more vulnerable you are in the event of losing him or her—e.g., if he or she is hit by a bus, or leaves for another company.

But you guys know me. If everybody else is going left, I’m going to go right (a highly predictable trait that my friend Sameer frequently reminds me of...

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Introducing Lazy.js
May 31, 2013

I recently started a JavaScript project called Lazy.js that’s been getting quite a lot of attention1. Essentially the project is a utility library in a similar vein to Underscore or Lo-Dash, but with lazy evaluation (hence the name).

The reason I think the project has been piquing the interest of so many JavaScript developers is that it offers the promise of some truly solid performance, even compared to Lo-Dash (which is itself highly optimized in comparison to Underscore). This chart shows the performance of Lazy.js compared to both of those libraries for several common operations on arrays of 10 elements each on Chrome:

Lazy.js performance versus Underscore and Lo-Dash
Lazy.js performance versus Underscore and Lo-Dash

You can read more about what Lazy.js does on the project website or in the README on its GitHub page. In this blog post, I want to write a little bit about how it works, and what makes it different.

A different paradigm

Fundamentally, Lazy.js represents a paradigm shift from the model of Underscore and Lo-Dash (starting...

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Rethinking priority
April 27, 2013

Looking back on some of my recent posts on this blog, I’m a bit annoyed at myself for being too hand-wavy and not saying anything all that original.

I’d like to make an effort, at least in my next few posts, to get more concrete and challenge some of the conventions I’ve observed in the software world. I’ll start with an idea that I think is not all that radical, though it would mark a sigificant departure for most teams I’ve worked on.

How we think about priority

The way most teams prioritize work seems totally sensible on the surface. Essentially, tasks are assigned some priority ranking such as “high”, “medium” or “low”; and then the highest-ranked tasks actually get assigned to people. In a perfect world this would mean that the most important things always get done, and then when there’s a surplus of time a team can “catch up” on issues that aren’t quite as urgent. In practice I think a different reality tends to emerge.

On projects I’ve been a part of, inevitably it turns...

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In defense of global state
April 23, 2013

I bet you weren’t expecting any sane developer to make this argument!

Well, to be fair, the title of this post is somewhat intentionally provocative1. But anyway, you’re here now; so it served its purpose. And make no mistake: I am going to defend global state—just possibly not in quite the way you might be expecting.

What we mean by global state

First, some background. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a developer so I probably don’t have to explain this; but I think there are at least two forms of global state that come to mind in software. One form is global variables–values that are accessible and can be changed, globally, anywhere, by all of the code in a project. The other is constants–values that may be accessible to potentially every part of a program, but cannot be changed.

These aren’t the only kinds of global state, though. I would argue that globality–apparently that’s actually a word2–is a continuous (as opposed to discrete or binary) property. Meaning...

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People are not resources
April 17, 2013

I never actually worked in an environment like this, but I’ve read enough articles on The Daily WTF to have an image in my head of the old dusty, temperamental servers that companies used to have back in the 90s and early 2000s.

Ye olde server
Ye olde server

Those were dark days, from what I hear—when your business was victimized at the whim of an unpredictable piece of hardware. If the power went out, or the CPU overheated, or the hard drive failed, your site went down. It was as simple as that.

We live in a different era now, with PaaS and IaaS and all that cloudy good stuff. Your average tech-savvy business owner is going to know there’s no particularly good reason to run your own server anymore if you’re a small company. And if you’re one of the large companies providing these services like Amazon or Google, you have been on top of the hardware problem for a long time, with data centers distributed around the country (or the world) connected in a controllable and reliable way. It’s not an issue...

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