“Ticket Monkey”

tl; dr – I hypothesize the physical and emotional distance of ticketing systems reduces job satisfaction and propose solutions.

Bear with me.

I remember when I was a kid I knew how to code. I didn’t get as good grades as I could have, I didn’t shine in a few other ways, but despite this I knew I could do something special. I could build interesting things and I could fix problems.

When it came to my first job I felt the same way. At the time I’d say I was still a bit “rough around the edges” but I could fix problems, sometimes hard ones, and that made me useful. It felt great to be needed using the one way I knew I was good at. There was nothing like somebody walking over to my desk to tell me about a problem that was making their lives hard, and to be able to fix it for them.

Pretty soon though a number of more senior engineers started speaking up. “We can’t have interruptions like this. We need to be more structured. We need to track this work. We need to put to asks in JIRA.” I had the same reaction a lot of people do, which was “Why do we need to track this? Do we not trust everybody is working to the best of their ability?”. I got the usual answers about the importance of estimation, planning, etc, and didn’t entirely understand, but accepted.

Years later, senior myself, I would insist – every code change must have an associated ticket. That isn’t to say I’m some kind of agile evangelist, but I certainly found ticketing systems indispensable, even for the smallest of teams. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten that I had ever felt otherwise.

Next role I became the main SRE for a chaotic startup. Some people would hate it, but I loved it. The buzz and thrill and of a war-room was incomparable to the transactional feature development that would eventually lead to an A/B release that would then possibly lead to a small % improvement in a metric. I loved fixing things for other engineers who I saw in person, who were happy and impressed that I would fix their issue and improved the whole system to make the issue impossible in the future.

What I loved wasn’t inherent to being an SRE itself. Though a high-stakes role, it can also be as isolating as any role. It can be waking up to an alarm at night to login in by oneself and fix an issue, file a ticket, and have nobody notice.

What I loved was face-to-face interaction and a shared emotional narrative.

From another angle – when I go to whole foods and watch the cashier scan my overpriced items, I wonder what they think. Though small talk with strangers is far from a strength for me, I struggle anyways to connect in whatever small way I can. I don’t think I could force a joke and trust the timing to line up with the variable checkout time. I try to be nice without being stiffly polite. It may mean bagging my own groceries, or avoiding the instinct to stare at my phone. I can’t even say for sure that cashiers notice or like it. I simply presume that if I were in their shoes I wouldn’t want to feel like a machine.

The Answer

Well first, the question: How do we reconcile our desire to feel individually noticed and human with the business needs of standardization? I think this question is the most important piece of this article. I’ll make a proposal or two, to get the ball rolling, but the topic is wide-open.

  • What if tickets are filed normally through jira, but then the filer must also come over to the desk of the person operating on the ticket and explain the issue face-to-face?
  • What if tickets are described in a way that stresses the emotional importance to the user of the feature?
  • What if end-user satisfaction and wishes, as captured by PMs who communicate with users, was shared with engineers?

How would you achieve it?

Scala Wishlist

I’d call myself a down-to-earth scala engineer. By that I mean that I never say words like “covariant” unless I absolutely have to. I see programming languages as a tool to make my life as easy as possible – I chose scala because it lets me get the most output for the least input. I think this is worth stating up-front, because my initial impression of scala was that it was daunting and geared toward academics, and I admit it does have some up-front costs.

What’s cool about scala – things it makes easy

Examples

def showOff(): Unit = {
   val someList = List(1,1,2,5,5,5,7,8,25,31,231,2335)
   val edgeCase = List()
   val uniqueCount = someList.unique.length
   val secondToLast = someList.dropRight(1).lastOption
   val secondToLast2 = edgeCase.dropRight(1).lastOption // None
   val res = someList.search(7) // find index of 7 in logN time = Found(6)
   val res2 = someList.view.map(x => x*x).search(100)
 // in logN time, find where 100 stacks up against this list, while only squaring logN items = InsertionPoint(8)
  val prefixSums = someList.scan(0)(_ + _) // 0, 1, 2, 4, 9...
  val groups = someList.groupBy(_.toString.length) // map into a list of 1-digit nums, 2 digit nums, 3 digit nums
  val lookup = someList.zipWithIndex.toMap // build a HashMap lookup of int -> index of last occurrence
  val lookupFirst = someList.zipWithIndex.distinctBy(_._1).toMap // build a HashMap of int -> index of first occurrence

  val countBy = someList.groupBy(identity).mapValues(_.length) // build a lookup of value -> count of occurrences  
 
  val matrix = Array.tabulate(10,10)((y, x) => y*10+x) // creates a matrix of nums 0->99
  val rowIsOdd = matrix(3).forall(_ % 2 == 1) // false
  val colIsOdd = (0 to 9).map(i => matrix(i)(1)).forall(_ % 2 == 1) //true

  val lookup = collection.mutable.Map[Double, Double]()
  def memoizedSqrt = (i) => lookup.getOrElseUpdate(i, Math.sqrt(i))
}

The above is just showing that scala has a bunch of helper functions that may seem trivial at first, but with mastery are outstanding building-blocks for all sorts of problems. Of course lodash achieves similar, for example.

Type Safety

Next the type-system. I think scala’s type system (particularly around Options and Futures) prevents a huge swath of bugs around edge-cases and concurrency by pointing out logic gaps at compile time. It takes longer to get scala code to run, but once it does it’s exponentially more likely to work correctly than node.


What I wish were changed

The gimmes

A for loop that functions like the c-style for-loop. Many linked-list and tree operations I write (i.e. leetcode) end up having to use whiles, which is blah.

An ability for a collection to have more than Int.MaxValue items. This is again something that comes up more from leetcode, but given that some collections (like Ranges and views) don’t (or at least needn’t) allocate that memory, it’s actually quite reasonable. This issue sprouts its head when you want to .search a long for example.

The culture

After the initial step of seeing map and reduce and thinking that “cool that looks handy” some of us have run into people peddling a “necessary next step” of learning exhausting thesaurus of interconnected academic buzzwords (covariant, functor, monoid…) that are really offputting. It’s been my experience that learning what a monad is has had zero effect on my productivity, and is at best a neat philosophical abstraction. Part of this complexity originates from scala’s type system. But the other half comes across as elitism and cargo-culting, fair or not.

Compilation

This is one of the real killers. I had a junior coworker who spent several hours trying to get his program to run, all while getting an illegible error. It turned out a brace was missing somewhere (or some other common mistake) which resulted in the compiler running for minutes then failing. Theoretically scala offers differential compiles, but if they are working they aren’t fast enough. Improving this alone by 75% would be more important than any and all of the fixes in scala 3.0.

Overcomplicated defaults (including libraries)

Again this is a sad one, because it would have been so easy for the normal libraries to cater toward beginners and only slowly expose complexity. I’ve seen tragic bugs (e.g. a super-fast language on a super-powerful machine misconfigured to only run 1 web-request at a time) that negate the entire value-promise of scala when put in the hands of non-experts. I’ve seen startups with hundreds of requests a day create a whole nightmare-to-debug actor-powered service because Akka. Documentation, simplicity, and guiding novices away from power-tools could have a much higher payoff than oddities like LazyList.

Also, real-world concerns (cross-future UUIDs, seeing memory usage per-thread) seem to be an afterthought, though this is true of most languages too.

The emotional tax of bad recommendations

tl; dr: I find some web 2.0 content so draining it undermines the experience of entire platforms

I think we can all relate to those moments in life when you feel overwhelmed — beset on all sides by obligations or problems. In such times I try to turn to humor, distractions, and escape.

For over a year now I’ve known that certain social-media platforms I was trying to “escape” to were actually promoting stress-inducing content that was having an entirely inverse effect. “This is my problem,” I told myself, “I’m the one choosing to open these sites.”

I never even touched Twitter. Then some news sites. Then linkedIn, nextdoor. The last stragglers are reddit, youtube, and news.ycombinator.

Reddit is the simplest illustration of this phenomenon. I have an exhausting meeting coming up, I need a 10 minute breather to clear my head, I turn on reddit for cat pictures and boom suddenly I’m witnessing a cop battering a protestor. My body has an immediate visceral response. So caught up am I in righteous indignation, that I have completely forgotten in the moment about how my goal was to relax. “I need to care about this!” screams my body.

I pruned my reddit feed, and now I’m down to “r/madeMeSmile” and “r/HighQualityGifs.” Unfortunately, if I ever log out of the site I get this default feed, which is about 25% outrage-bait (e.g. a video of a group of people confronting a car driving on the sidewalk) (e.g. “Controversial law allows police to seize and sell cars of non-lawbreakers, keeping the proceeds”).

The math here is working against me. One cute picture of a cat does not negate one horrifying video of somebody slipping on the stairs and hurting themselves. Or in the case of HN, one intense rant is not negated by one thoughtful comment.

Youtube though is the platform I’d miss the most. I seem to have no control over my youtube feed, but ideally it’d be this “Nothing political, nothing with the words ‘destroyed’/’owned’/’idiot’. Nothing about millennials/boomers. Nothing where the thumbnail is a face-palm. Nothing with the phrase ‘You wont believe'”.

I go to youtube for things like lockpicking videos, gameboy repair, primitive survival. Unfortunately, somehow I seem to get recommended a ton of Joe Rogan clips, unwanted fringe political videos, and a mix of other neutral unwanted content. And the comments are the worst.

Unfortunately what youtube’s algorithm doesn’t understand is linking one single inflammatory bad video recommendation (even if I don’t click it) may make my entire youtube experience negative. Most topics have an emotional impact on people, and web 2.0 needs to start regulating for this, or I suspect others will eventually find themselves booting platforms wholesale too.

If this were a youtube video, this is the point where I’d be telling you that this is some crisis to freak out about. But honestly it’s not really an urgent problem. I think there’s an opportunity for us as individuals to become increasingly aware of when we’re being baited/provoked and avoid platforms. I also think there’s an opportunity for new platforms or algorithms to form that prioritize giving the user the emotional experience that they are seeking.

A different github design

Earlier today HN reviewed a proposed github redesign and largely didn’t favor it.

I figured I’d take a stab at it

See the proposed before-and-after pictures above.
Here are some principles that seem intuitive to me, and maybe designers might consider them too.

  1. The visibility of an item should be proportional to its usefulness. This includes size, placement, brightness/colorfulness.
  2. There is always a flexible solution which caters to both experts and novices simultaneously.
  3. Hierarchy of UI should reflect conceptual hierarchy.

In practice here are the things I changed in my mockup, based on those 3 rules:

  • Create new file has no business being on the same line as “Clone repo.” It is a branch-specific operation next to a repo-specific operation.
  • The current-branch dropdown/button should connected-to the file-list widget. The file-list widget is showing files of that branch. The two are logically interdependent but visually separated.
  • Wiki and Insights are features I have never used on github and may never use. They should be hidden by default. They can intelligently show for repos that have ever once used those features.
  • The repo description shouldn’t be in the code tab. The repo description is an attribute to the repo itself


Good luck on your design journeys.

My Brainf Quine

A quine is something simple to describe yet surprisingly challenging to implement– a program which outputs exactly its own source-code. It is something of a rite-of-passage for an engineering afficianado. For those that consider ourselves one level beyond afficianado we always are looking to up the ante. I took two years exploratory years off after high school, and remember them fondly. Those were the days I could explore anything I wanted. Time was so abundant and problems were so scarce that I’d take on challenges like quines recreationally.

It’s a magical place to be in, when you any path feels possible and no obligations feels mandatory. It’s a time when one’s world-view is fully open, and interesting opportunities seem everywhere. It’s a time before traditional adulthood, where one can feel exhausted by unending obligations (cable bill, health insurance, change my oil, arrange my 401k, excercise more, sleep more, read more, relax more, setup dentist appointment, pickup groceries, return that item, answer those emails to those family members).

Once we’re in the “real world” it can be a challenge to remember that initial feeling of possibility. Once the lionshare of our time is spoken for, one may switch modes from expanding exploration to reduction. A mode where we filter our world into a functional place of checklists and routines to optimize staying afloat when our time, attention, and concern run short and we must ration them.

Anyways, I reminisce. But back in that era, one thing my friends and I would do is make coding challenges for each other. After a friend introduced me to “brainfuck,” a language with only 6 commands all represented as single characters, I challenged him to write a quine in brainfuck. I can see by googling that many other people like us are out there, who, like us, have been to that place where we are hungry for the next challenge to create for ourselves.

Recently I found my quine from back then it brought back memories.

 

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+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>+>>>>>+++>++>>>>>++>++
>>>>>+++>++++++>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>+>+>>>>>+
++>+++++++>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>+
>>>>>+++>+>>>>>++>+++>>>>>++++++>++>>>>>+>+>>>>>+++>+
>>>>>+>+>>>>>+++>+>>>>>++>+
+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>
+>>>>>++>++>>>>>+++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>+++
+>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>+++++>+>>>>>++>++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+
>+++>>>>>+++++>+>>>>>++>+++++>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>+++>+>>>>>+
+>>>>>+++>+>>>>>++>+++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>++++++>
+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>++>++>>>>>+++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>+>>>>>++++++
+>>>>>+>+>>>>>+++++>+>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>
+++++>+++++>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>++>++++++>>>>>+++>+>>>
>+>++++++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>++>++++++
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+>>>>>+++>++++++++++>>>>>+>+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>++>++
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+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+>+>>>>>+++>+>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>+
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+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>++>++>>>>>++++++>+>>>>>++++>+>>
>>+>+>>>>>+++>++>>>>>++>+>>>>>+++++++>++++++>>>>>++>+>>>>>++++++>
+>>>>>++++>+>>>>>+>++>>>>>+++++>+>>>>>++>++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>++>+
++++>>>>>+++++++>+>>>>>>

++++++[-<++++++++++>]
<++……[-]
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<<<<<<[<<<<<<]>>>>>>
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]

Sopping Wet — Today’s Software Ecosystem Isn’t DRY

Tl; Dr:

  • Everyone seems to understand DRY is good at the program level, but they don’t seem to understand it at the community level.
  • Examples of useless duplication include many programming languages, libraries, package managers, data-stores, tools
  • This community duplication reduces interoperability and slows productivity across the board

Section 1: Some examples

1. Why is there more than one unix/linux package manager? Do we really need a different package manager with the same commands but renamed for each programming language? Why do we need a distinct package manager for each distro?

2. Nobody seems to admit it, but Php, Ruby, Python, and Javascript are the same language, with a little sugar added here or there and different libraries. More formally, I’d say that for 99% of lines of code (written) there’s a 1:1 translation between each of these languages (on a per-line basis). I get differences like curly braces vs indenting, but it does strike me as wet that each language has rebuilt so much core functionality (date parsing, database connectivity with the use of NoSQL database solutions, html parsing, regex, etc). Wrapping libcurl, for example, is a great way to stay dry.

This leads to a scenario where “learning a language” is more about learning the libraries than anything else (e.g. “How do timezones work again in PHP?”)

3. Did MongoDB really need to exist as as a standalone application? What if MongoDB had simply been a storage engine? The concept of a datastore that adapts its schema on-the-fly and drops relations for speed is okay, but does that justify creating an entirely new data-storage technology to that end? This means millions of engineers learning a new query syntax for a potentially temporary technology. Same with the security policy, all the DB drivers. There’s no reason all the tools to get visibility (sql pro) and backup the database need to be reinvented. Plus, if it were just a storage engine, migrating tables to InnoDB would be easier.

The same point holds for cassandra (which is basically mysql with sharding and more sophisticated replication built in), elastic search, and even kafka (basically just WAL of mysql without columns). For example, a kafka topic could be seen as a table with the columns: offset, value. Remember storage engines can process different variations on SQL to handle any special functionality or performance characteristics as-needed (I do recognize what I’m describing is easier said than done, but recommend it nonetheless).

4. Overly-specialized technologies should not exist (unless built directly around a general technology). You ever see a fancy dinner-set, where for “convenience” people are offered 5 forks and spoons, each one meant to be used slightly differently for a slightly different task? That’s how I feel about overly-specialized technologies. For example, people seem to love job queues. What if all job queues were implemented on top of a SQL backend so that engineers get the normal benefits:

  1. engineers know how to diagnose the system if it fails because it’s a known system (e.g. performance issues, permissions)
  2. engineers can always query the system to see what’s happening because it’s using a standardized query language
  3. engineers can modify the system if necessary because it provides visibility into its workings
  4. engineers can use existing backup, replication, monitoring, and other technologies to store/distribute the queue (giving interoperability)

Section 2: What’s the result of all this?

  • Every time a brand-new hype technology is introduced senior Engineers are all set back years relative to junior ones (which is bad for senior engineers, good for junior engineers)
  • The ecosystem is set back as a whole (all tools, libraries that interact with the old technology are rebuilt for the new one)
  • Company is placed in an uncomfortable position because it now only has junior engineers in the given technology. When I was junior, I worked at a startup that accidentally lost most of their customers’ phone numbers because their PHP driver for mongo would convert numeric strings to numbers, and phone numbers would overflow the default integer, resulting in no fatal errors but simply negative phone numbers.
  • The company runs the risk of being saddled with a technology that will be dropped (e.g. couchdb, backbone) and will require a rewrite back to a standard technology or be perceived as behind-the-times.
  • Slow-learning / part-time engineers must keep pace with the changing landscape or face irrelevance. Those that can’t learn several technologies a year will stumble.
  • Fast paced-engineers will lose half of their learning capacity on trivialities and gotchas of each technology’s idiosyncrasies (e.g. why can’t apache configs and nginx configs bare any resemblance to each other?). Once these technologies are phased out (e.g. now it’s mostly cloud ELBs) all of that memorization is for naught. It’s a treadmill effect – engineers have to sprint (keep learning new technologies) to move forward at all, walk just to stay in place, and if you can’t keep pace with the treadmill you fall behind.Quick aside – I think things moving to the cloud is probably one of the most outstanding dev benefits I’ve seen in my life. However it continues to illustrate the point in that if different cloud providers don’t standardize then the whole development community is slowed down.

Section 3: The exceptions

There are a few exceptions I can think of when a complete rebuild from scratch was an improvement. One would be Git. In a few months, one of the most prominent software geniuses of our era invented a source-control system so superior to everything else that it has been adopted universally in a few years, despite the intimidating interface.

The times a rebuild is justified seem to be when many of these criteria apply:

  • You’re a known and well-respected name that people trust so much the community might standardize on what you make (e.g. Linus Torvalds, Google)
  • The existing systems are all awful in fundamental ways, not simple in easily-patchable ways. You’ve got the ability, time [and we’re talking at least a decade of support], money to dedicate yourself to this project (git, aws, gmail, jquery in 2006)
  • You can make your system backward compatible (e.g. C++ allows C, C allows assembler, Scala allows Java, many game systems and storage devices can read previous-generation media) and thus can reuse existing knowledge, libraries, and tools
  • You’re so smart and not-average that your system isn’t going to have the myriad of unanticipated flaws that most software systems you want to replace will. For example, angular, backbone, nosql, are all things that might, in hindsight, have been not worth learning. Of the current high-buzz languages as of me writing this (Go, Clojure, Haskell, Ruby) it’s open to speculation which will stand the test of time.
  • Your system is already built-in-to or easily-integrated-with existing systems (e.g. JSON being interpretable in all browsers automatically, moving your service to the web where it will work cross-platform and be accessible without installation)

Section 4: What can one do?

  1. Learn the technologies that have stood the test of time: linux cli, c++/java, javascript, SQL
  2. Wait years before adopting a technology in professional use for a major use-case– let other companies be the guinea pig
  3. Be judicious in usage of new technologies. For whatever reason, it’s culturally “cool” to know about the “next big thing,” but it’s better to be late and right than early and wrong.

Our obligation as leadership

The talk of importance of values is one irony of the San Francisco scene, if not human nature. The same values are discussed everywhere; so why then is it that these same values seem to be applied nowhere?

Could it simply be that it’s much easier to see the mistakes of others than our own? Perhaps those of us in positions of power often subjected to less scrutiny? Yes, to both of these. And so it becomes our own greatest personal challenge to remain true to our goals when nobody else is checking.

Let’s consider the value of ownership. What does this mean for us? It’s easy to look at the engineers who report to us and think about the times they didn’t take a personal investment in what they were doing, and how that harmed the company.

But for us to be good at our job, we must challenge ourselves to hold ownership, because it’s rare somebody will tell us when we’re not.

So what does ownership actually mean? Well, if an engineer is taking ownership of a project that to me means that she takes personal and emotional accountability for doing the best feasible job she can at it. If it’s broken on production, she is treating the lost revenue like her own.

But what does ownership look like in a manager? To me ownership is no less of an obligation. In fact we have more obligation because we have more influence. We should hold ourselves personally accountable for accurately assessing the merits of our direct reports. If a great manager screws up, he should lay awake at night until he fixes it, just as a great engineer would wake up to fix a production issue. A great manager won’t “good enough” it and wait until the next review cycle to compensate. Us not admitting to an error to save face is no less excusable than an engineer covering up when he breaks the app (which is to say absolutely inexcusable).

Ownership is about caring about the job getting done correctly, at a core level, above-and-beyond what is immediately asked of you. If you see a problem that nobody else sees, ownership is taking it up and ensuring that it gets resolved, regardless of how it reflects on you. Ownership is helping the company and the customer, even if it costs you your job (be that whistle-blowing, disagreeing with an incorrect authority, refusing to do something immoral/illegal).

If you institute an initiative that is clearly ineffective, then you should admit it and withdraw the initiative. Your self-promotion is not a contribution to the company. If you are a great manager, you won’t make it your direct reports’ job to convince you they are great; you will make it your job, your contribution to ensure everyone beneath you is being used to the best of their ability. And if your manager is great, she won’t expect you bring donuts, wear a tie, show up early, or flatter; because it will be her contribution to the company to accurately evaluate your work (and not how much she loves or hates you).

And if, when you hear this, you find it mildly irritating that anybody would ask so much of you… then don’t be surprised when those you lead act as do and not as you say. Your attitude is the irony of the SF tech scene.

Solving rush-hour

For those who’ve been inspired by last programming challenge, I thought I’d give annotations on a programming exercise I’ve created.

The challenge: code an AI to solve Rush Hour, you can play Rush Hour online if you aren’t familiar with how the game works. If you want to follow along, you can find my solution on github.

The game of Rush Hour
The game of Rush Hour(tm) – The objective is to get the red car to the exit. The above picture illustrates one possible board.

Let me start with the high-level thought process.

How to solve it?

The most naive approach is a brute-force solution, trying every move, filtering out backtracking. Some simple math will let us rule this possibility in or out.

The only state in Rush Hour the positions of the cars. Thus the number of possible game states is equal to the number of possible arrangements of cars. We can approximate an upper bound of the latter by multiplying the number of possible spaces each car could move to (this ignores cars being on top of each other, hence upper-bound). In the above board we see 8 vehicles, and each vehicle can only ever occupy 4 or 5 squares [they can’t turn ever] depending if their size). Some boards have more vehicles, so if we estimate 10 vehicles at 5 positions that’s 5^10 < 10 million.  So yes, brute force is in.

The general solution:

Because “brute force” is such a general mechanism, there really is a lot of reusable code in the solution. In my solution I’ve pulled out the reusable logic into genericSearch.js. The idea is that a whole host of puzzles follow the same form: Given an Initial state try to get to End State.

The docblock below is the interface to genericSearch that is used by the solver, but this same search function could be used by any number of puzzles (triangle peg game, sudoku, etc).

Screenshot_2
Any brute-force can be represented with only these params.

Thus, to write the program (after having written genericSearch.js) all I must do is to make those 5 parameters [and any helpers to go along].

Initial state – Brain Dead Simple

I know a lot of engineers who would be tempted to represent the game of rush hour with at least a half dozen classes (“so we have vehicle base class, which has car or truck subclasses, and we’d need a class for the board and legal moves”).

And that is a valid way to go about it. I went with a minimalist solution– a nested array 36 characters. Brain dead simple.

 

 

 

It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Because every car is at least 2 in size, this string notation suffices to convey both the position and bearing of vehicles, everything we need. Since the exit is always in the same spot, that needn’t be represented in state. Adjacent characters of the same value represent the same car.

We have our first parameter, initial state. However, we have skimped in our state, by not defining what a vehicle is or orientation in the state object we’ll have to define that logic later.

Some of the advantages of representing the board state as an array of characters:

  • It’s trivial to serialize. Serialization is key to making sure we don’t backtrack when searching for solutions.
  • It’s very easy to input.
  • It’s very easy to output and debug. At the end to see the solution found I can simply “play” the states and watch the characters move.
  • At any given moment it’s trivial to determine if a space is vacant of any vehicles.
  • Certain impossible board-states are prevented automatically (e.g. a misconfigured initial state could not result in overlapping vehicles).

Some of the disadvantages:

  • We must determine every car on the board and which direction it’s facing. This is non-trivial (let’s call “trivial” something that I code correctly on my first try).
  • Moving a vehicle is kind of “dirty.” By moving vehicles by overwriting the board state it’d be easy make bugs that create weird board states (vehicle with size one).
  • Certain impossible board-states are prevented automatically (e.g. a misconfigured board state could not result in a vehicle with no bearing)
Parameter 2 – Possible moves

Each vehicle may move forward, or backward (assuming its path is unobstructed). To keep things simple, we can say a vehicle can only move 1 square at a time and represent longer travels as multiple moves.

Get all possible moves from this state
Get all possible moves from this state

This definition introduces a few more functions (getVehicles, canGoForward, canGoBackward), which I won’t put into the post. See the full code for that. The reason I exclude them is because I don’t have any particularly elegant solution to those tasks.

Parameter 3 – Apply move

Again I have no magic to work on this one so I won’t show the 15 lines. In fact, it feels like the least dry piece of the code to me, and it makes me want to refactor the most. The number of occurrences of -1 are too numerous (6) and speak to casual coding.

So don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to say anybody should hold this code up as an amazing example of good code. What I hoped to illustrate is how a problem that seems daunting can actually be broken down into 19 functions, the longest being 23 lines.

The Gimmes

I have two functions left. One is how to uniquely represent the state as a string. The other is win condition. The former is easy: JSON.stringify. The latter is easy as well.

Screenshot_6

And we’re done! Now I’ve left our the genericSearch.js, which honestly was perhaps the most fun, but this post is long enough. If your thirst isn’t quenched try playing around with it yourself.

Takeaways
  • Keep the pure & reusable code in a separate file (or separate function) from your 1-time, implementation-dependent code
  • Maybe 2 classes would have come in handy. Despite being small, the code doesn’t seem as friendly as I’d want. If I had kept state as an object of objects I would never have to define string -> state mapping.
  • Unit tests would have been a good way to allow such a refactoring to be less painful.

Don’t be an Architecture Hipster – A guide

One of my more popular HN comments was a teardown of an all-too-common engineering subculture. The article in question sought to teach “Software Architecture,” but ultimately annoyed me and many other HN readers.

Tl; dr:
Software architecture discussions are so polluted by software-hipsters that the majority of software engineers are disinclined to discuss and study architecture at all.

Know-it-all / hipster

  • Probably studied philosophy, english, film-studies, or engineering.
  • Lurks around discussions, hoping to overhear a mistake, any mistake. 
  • Uses an unnecessarily complex vocabulary
  • Has a self-righteous and loud tone of voice, especially when correcting people.
  • Enjoys correcting people, even on minor/irrelevant points.
  • If asked him a question you can be sure of two things:
    1) he will never admit he doesn’t know
    2) he will answer with so many niche terms that you will end up more confused than when you began
  • He may be likened to Dwight Shrute, or the comic-book guy.

Architecture  Hipster

  • Loves UML making diagrams. Gladly presents them without a legend to people who don’t know how to read UML diagrams.
  • Love creating new unintuitive names for very simple ideas (e.g “Broker topology”). Proceeds to use these niche names in discussions and judges other people for not knowing what a “Broker Topology” is.
  • Gets really into programming fads that are hailed as panaceas but later get tossed out for a new panacea (e.g. microservices, Layered Architecture, REST).
  • Gets very emotionally attached to programming decisions, even if they will have no effect on the user.
  • Loves engineering around unlikely “what ifs…”.
  • Prefers creating abstraction through classes instead of functions, even if no state is needed.
  • Is bored by “practical details” like logging, debugging, convenience, fail-safes, and delivering quickly.
  • Maximizes the number and obscurity of patterns used, leading to classes named things like EventLoopListenerFactory.
  • Only cares about performance if obscure (e.g. tail-call optimization)
  • Isn’t actually very capable creating software (hasn’t won any coding competitions, has trouble with git reset, hasn’t written any software that people enjoy using)

Thus:

Know-it-all / hipster
 = Architecture  Hipster 
+ software architecture 

I don’t dislike architecture. Architecture is a beautiful study. However, the complexity of the discipline makes an fertile ground for phonies; a space for phonies to use miscommunication as a tool to create an illusion of their own competence.

The “Hello” World

Have you ever been searching for a song on your favorite music service and scrolled through all the songs that matched your search. All of them?

For example, top of the pop billboards at the time of this writing is Adele’s “Hello.” I scrolled for a while and got to at least 1,962 songs named “Hello,” before I stopped scrolling.

It feels like looking into the grand canyon.

A few things are immediately apparent-

  1. All comes to pass. To illustrate, Madonna too is in the Hello list, but her Hello didn’t last; I can’t see why Adele’s would.
  2. The top dog takes it all. Adele’s variant has 250 million spotify listens. Most of the Hellos have < 2,000 listens. Adele’s Hello very well may have more (spotify) listens than all of the other 2 thousand combined.
  3. It’s  harder than it seems. When all the songs you know of are big hits, it can be hard to realize just how many unpopular songs are out there.
  4. This goes deeper than “Hello.” I just picked the top song on the billboard at the moment, but it could have been any songs. Or any poem, or book, blog, or famous person.

And a few things are less obvious-

  1. Why does the top dog take it all? Why do 99% of songs never reach the radio? Are most of these songs just bad? Is it simply that it’s ten times easier to write a bad song than a good one? Or is it that the music industry builds pop celebrities for profit, and radios buy in? Or is it that audiences don’t want so much choice, that we only like a song the 3rd time we hear it so we focus on a few new ones?
  2. So two thousand people chose the same word for their title. Is unique art only a fantasy? From the pool of a million english words, two thousand artists all picked the same one as the title of their song. I know this because I searched by title. How many of these songs share the same key chords? How many of these songs are about the same thing? Artists, like the rest of us, like to think they are doing the unique, but maybe the pool of possibilities split among all of humanity isn’t big enough to allow us each a distinctly unique idea, song title, or life story.
  3. So where do they all end up? There must be at least 80 hours of “Hello,” on spotify. Which makes me think there must be enough music on spotify that I couldn’t listen to it all if I dedicated the rest of my waking life to it. And people are still writing music. Is it just a never-ending cycle of new genres with a small fraction surviving into each new generation with the vast musical history resting in peace at the bottom of our searches? Or do we someday exhaust the unique musical possibilities?