Archive for August, 2010

The miracle of computer applications

There is a process, that I’d call man-made evolution, for the lack of a better term. By intellectual effort, mankind can achieve new abilities.

Basically, there were two major breakthroughs until recently:

  1. Tools. A tool would transform our force in a way, so that it can be used in a way previously impossible. Man has no claws, but could shape stones to be used the same way, an animal with claws would use claws.
  2. Machines. As the next step from tools, man created machines. Machines are a step forward in two ways. For one, they allowed to perform desired motions in a very effective way (such as using a loom, which requires only a repetitive and simple movement, to perform a task, that would otherwise be very time consuming), but secondly also allowed harnessing other sources of energy than manpower.

And then, not so long ago, computer applications emerged (you may want to imagine some dramatic music here, a choir of angels and that kind of stuff 😉 ). Of course, computer applications require computers to run, but personally, I don’t think, the biggest gain mankind gets from computers is, that we can compute things insanely fast, but rather that we can run applications on them.

I believe applications, to be the third significant breakthrough.

What a machine does, is determined by the laws of physics and the constellation of its components. A computer constitutes a world, where the laws of physics are replaced by the possibilities of the hardware.  What an application does is determined by those possibilities, while the physical composition of components is replaced by mere software, providing flexibility, that was probably undreamed of 100 years ago. Without material or mechanical modification, a computer can be altered in order to perform new or other tasks, or can be improved at the tasks it is carrying out. Any application installed on a computer, can be thought of as an individual machine.

Computers are a leap forward in that a single computer can be used for a multitude of extremely unrelated tasks, while an application can run on an unlimited number of computers. When computers actually emerged, this was more a theoretical possibility, but now, we live in a world, where computers are cheap, small, fast, amazingly reliable and writing portable software is feasible in a reasonable amount of time.

Truth is, computer applications are great in many ways, but they still are machines. As any machine, they need an operator. For him to operate the machine, control elements are needed. Or an interface, as programmers would say. Computers (at least PCs) typically all have the same physical interface (screen, possibly some sort of audio output, mouse and keyboard), while applications have a more abstract interface built on top of computer interfaces. The great thing about application interfaces is, that they are also just software. Again, without any material or mechanical modification, an interface can be adapted to its user. Suppose, you wanted your alarm to start filling your tub, when it rings, or you want to switch your tap from separate taps to a mixing tap. In the world of software, an equivalent task usually requires less effort, and once you succeeded, you can do it for any tub in the world, without much effort. This would really be of great service to the inhabitants of the UK. 😛

With the advent of the internet, the potential of software development spiked. One application can run in multiple physical locations (something basically no traditional machines can accomplish reasonably). The application can be updated automatically and easily. I think, we rarely appreciate or even understand, what an enormous potential this is. But it is. One man can create an application, that saves 10% of the broadband-internet users (should be about 50 millions) 1 minute of work per day. That’s half a billion minutes saved per day, assuming a workpensum 40 hours a week (ergo about 125000 minutes per year), this is equivalent to 400 man years saved. Per day. Now these are numbers serve more the purpose to impress you and everyone else, than to really measure anything, but I think, they do make my point. 🙂

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Thoughts on Programming

It has been recently (i.e. a few months ago) pointed out to me, that my blog is kind of empty. I was pleasently surprised to hear, someone cared. 😀

Well, I have been reflecting a lot on programming lately, looking at various other languages, after I had given up efforts to create my own, as well as frameworks, not having given up those efforts yet. I have looked at different paradigms, best practices, common practices, philosophies and concepts. What I found out, is that there’s a general lack of clear definitions on the web and there are many approaches that are mistakes. As a consequence, I have decided to fill the void, which I am hopefully not the only one to perceive. 😉

I am proud to announce, that from this day on, I intend to pester the world with my dilettantish thoughts on programming. This will include concrete principles and concepts, as well as some “deep” spiel (much like this post), intended to explain, why I deem this and that approach of high importance. I think, it is important to see a purpose in what you do, and should you be looking for one, maybe I can help you at least a little.

In the scope of this announced series of posts, programming and software development shall be used interchageably. That’s because I

  • will only focus on programming for the purpose of software development
  • intend to postulate principles, which transcend all layers of software development, right from design down to implementation,
  • think programming cannot be thought of as just coding (i.e. writing code). Any time it is, the results are usually useless crap.

Apart from stealing your time with this announcement, I’ll try to maintain some sort of table of contents in this very post, to provide some sort of structured overview to an otherwise chaotic stream of vaguely related posts.

I hope you enjoy reading, what I have to say, and pick up a few helpful things.


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Everybody likes XML. Everybody, but me.

Nowadays, it seems the vast majority thinks XML is the bestestestest format ever on this and any other planet, and they really use it to serialize anything, no matter how perverted it actually may be.

It appears to be one of the first standards for the task of human readable representation of complex data, that gained popularity. Its strength does not come from its design, but from the fact, that it is a standard, and that there’s been some thought put into it, unlike many home-brew serialization you and I come across every now and then. But really, that’s it. Being reasonably good in a field at a time where there were no alternatives, doesn’t mean, it’s still to be considered good.

Personally, I do not like XML

  1. It is verbous, redundant and huge in size. The XML closing tag is the most stupid invention ever. At any point, where a closing tag may occur, it is completely determined. It doesn’t carry any information the string <//> wouldn’t carry. But no, you have to type it in.
  2. It is error-prone. The above problem (missing/misspelled closing tags) is the problem I run into most of the time, as soon as I let people edit the XMLs (which is the purpose of human readable formats). In proper markup languages, this is a pure syntax error.
  3. It has no built-in support for numerical and boolean values. These values can only be included using string representations, which means you need a contract on top of the XML standard, stating how to represent them. Is a bool true | false? TRUE | FALSE? 1|0? How about 1.12+10? Is that a Float? 1.12.2010 is not (In German and other languages, this denotes the date 2010/12/1), although you realize that only half way through, but you can’t possibly try parsing all possible data types and see which one fits the best.
  4. It’s semantics differ A LOT from the object model of about any decent language. At data level, objects have properties. Each property has a value, that’s either primitive, complex or a collection. An XML-node has attributes and children. These concepts are completely different. Sometimes, properties are represented as attributes, but that doesn’t work for complex values. It is hard to say, whether a child node represents a property, or whether it is possibly the only entry of a list, which is the actual property of the represented object.

XML is of use, but by far not the universal tool everybody believes it to be. In order for XML to be usable in as many contexts as possible, it is completely misused. SVG paths are the best example. XML does not capture the information, that the path represented is not just a string. It is not a flat attribute, such as hairColor=”black”, but XML itself provides no way to tell that.

Widely spread alternatives are JSON and YAML, the latter still being quite exotic, while at the same time being very expressive and containing the former as a subset. JSON could represent the SVG path information, that is tucked into a single string in XML, as what it is: an array (i.e. actually a list, but fair enough). It literally means JavaScript Object Notation and focuses on representing objects, while the eXtensible Markup Language focuses on extensibility, blatantly failing at the most obvious tasks.

XML done right, using schemas and within certain contexts can resolve a lot of ambiguities, but then again this makes XML even more complex and more verbose.

Actually, there is nothing, XML can do, you cannot do better in a number of other established human readable or binary serialization formats. At the end of the day, the only reason to use XML is, that many services and tools you will encounter and want to integrate, use XML. Other than that, XML just sucks.

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