Monthly Archives: October 2012

Paranoid Android

Two years ago I finally convinced my wife that we should trade in our lame feature phones for a couple of nice, capable smartphones. I had been making the case for months that we should have our calendars digital and synced with each other. This came to a head when we double-booked a weekend back in the summer of 2010 in which we were supposed to be a.) on vacation in Cape May, N.J., for an extended weekend, and b.) attending our close friends’ 25th wedding anniversary party. The result? We drove to the shore, and we attended the party. Attending the party required us to give up an entire day of our vacation; missing the party was not an option. I had the vacation on my calendar, she had the party on her calendar. I rested my case.

So began the quest for finding the best smartphone available. I had whittled the options down to the iPhone 4 and the Droid Incredible. We were Verizon Wireless customers at the time, and the iPhone was still an AT&T exclusive. I was hoping that the Incredible would do the job so we could stay on Verizon’s network, but watching my wife interact with the UI was painful. My wife is a very smart person, but she found the Incredible’s UI navigation to be, well, not so incredible. When she picked up the iPhone, however, she quickly was able to find her way around. It was a done deal. We were getting iPhones. In fact, she loved the device so much that she recommended it to our friends, and many of them now have iPhones. Quite a stark contrast from her protest just a few months prior!

That was two years ago. Now, our two-year contract is up, and we’ve found AT&T’s signal to be atrocious in many of the areas we travel. It’s particularly bad at our home, so I installed a 3G Microcell device that basically turned our iPhones into VoIP phones. (AT&T charged me $150 for the device, when in fact they should have paid me! But that’s a story for another day.) It’s really great, when it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and that causes me a lot of grief. We are unquestionably switching back to Verizon.

I could have gotten an Android device on AT&T’s network for myself, but I hesitated, because:

At this point, though, I’m ready to ditch Apple. If my wife decides to get a new iPhone (and she can now that the iPhone is no longer exclusive to AT&T), she knows the UI inside and out, and doesn’t need my help. And that’s exactly why I don’t want a new iPhone. Sure, they still make an incredible piece of hardware, but iOS is getting pretty tired. People obviously are eating it up, but I keep wanting more from my phone and Apple just isn’t doing it for me these days. Meanwhile, Android has made huge strides in the last two years, and that’s what I like to see — progress! Android still has challenges with OS fragmentation and carrier rollout of updates, but Apple withholds many new iOS features from older devices. For example, when iOS 5 came out, my iPhone 4 didn’t get Siri. Sure, many people will tell you that Siri sucks, but I never got the chance to judge for myself. Fragmentation, anyone? Oh, and don’t get me started on those stupid new connectors that require a $30 adapter to use older cables, or the big maps failure.

What I want more than anything is a Nexus phone on Verizon’s network — if for nothing else, to minimize OS fragmentation and reduce carrier influence over the device. But, based on the rumors I’ve been reading online, the upcoming Nexus phone might not make it onto Verizon’s network and/or not have MicroSD support. If any of this materializes, I will likely end up with the Droid Razr HD (unless someone can talk me out of it). It’s also tempting to grab the Samsung Galaxy Nexus on the cheap, but there is no guarantee that it will continue to be a candidate for future Android releases.

I have another week or two to mull over the options. Hopefully some fresh details will emerge about the upcoming Nexus phone. After the new phones are purchased, I will post a review.

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Hello, GitHub

I’m a little behind the times. I’ve been committing my code to an SVN repository for the last five years, and the interwebs are all about Git these days. I decided to take it for a test drive. But with what?

Almost a year ago, I started working on a data structures library in C# — not a useful library, just something I whipped up to essentially prove that I could still write a linked list and perform operations on it (such as reversing and sorting). It’s hardly something to brag about, but it’s a perfect test candidate for Git.

I went looking for my project, and boy, does my ignorance know no bounds. When I authored this library, I thought it would be best to test it out using a console app, spitting out values to the console, and inspecting the output by hand. Obviously, I should have just expressed that as a series of unit tests, but I probably felt that doing so would slow my progress with the library. Stupid. So, I converted the console code to a series of unit tests in MSTest. (I’ve only ever used NUnit, but hey, this is an adventure, right?) And besides, I was going to be committing this code to a public repository on Github, and I wanted to spare myself from embarrassment.

From there, I created an account with Github, and set up my first repository. Next, I installed Github for Windows to clone the repository on my local machine.

Everything was in place. But, to make things a little easier, I installed Git Source Control Provider plugin for Visual Studio, which also required the installation of straight-up Git. (By the way, Github’s instructions for setting up Git are very good.) Using this plugin was certainly a welcome change from managing my source from outside the IDE.

Via the Git plugin, I added all of the necessary files to the repository from within Visual Studio. Perfect. At this point, I had my data structures solution in Visual Studio 2012, complete with unit tests, and code fully committed to the local Git repository. The next logical step was to click “sync” in Github for Windows to sync all of my local changes with Github. Right? I did that, and received this gem:

Github for Windows: Unstaged Changes Error

Github for Windows: Unstaged Changes Error

OK, so how do I “stage” my changes? Sure, I could open the shell, but do what, exactly? Well, Github for Windows seemed to offer no solution, so the shell quickly became my only option. I fired up Git Bash (part of Git), and typed git commit to see what happened. The response was that there was nothing to commit. Ah, so git commit is only local. I typed git help to see what other options were available, and git push looked like it had some potential. I tried that out, was prompted for my Github credentials, and bam — all of my local commits have been pushed up to Github.

I’ve only gotten started. I have more code to add to the project, and I will try adding it from multiple machines to get a feel for the experience of team collaboration with Git/Github. Look for those details in a future post.

Update: Github for Windows JUST made a liar out of me. I repeated all of these steps on another machine, made a small change, synced from Github for Windows, and pushed the changes to Github without any problems. Go figure!

Update 2: It wasn’t Github’s fault, it was mine. It helps when you point Visual Studio’s Git plugin to Git running on Windows.

Incorrect Path to Git for Windows

It helps when you provide a valid path to Git for Windows.


A Strange Loop in St. Louis

I traveled to St. Louis last week to attend my first Strange Loop conference. (It is a strange name. The FAQ offers an explanation, but because I get the feeling that most of its attendees would like to “strangle OOP,” I’m a little suspicious.)

ANYway, Strange Loop is a fairly new conference (this is its fourth year) aimed to attract developers from various disciplines. Talks cover a variety of areas, including databases (both big and small), emerging languages, web and mobile development, etc. I first learned about the conference less than a year ago when I watched Rich Hickey’s keynote at last year’s conference. I was hooked.

From talking to other attendees, I gathered that the overall theme changes from year to year, and this year there seemed to be lots of discussion about databases — in particular their methods of persistence, and the relevance of transactions and/or ACID. Opinions varied widely, and it was both amusing and informative to watch it play out.

Strange Loop is About to Begin

Strange Loop is about to begin.

This year’s venue was the Peabody Opera House, which is gorgeous. There was ample room for attendees, the facility was clean and kept after, the acoustics were great, the WiFi was excellent, and the coffee was plentiful. The organizers of this event did a tremendous job putting all of this together.

Day 0: Pre-Conference and Pre-Party

I did not attend the Emerging Language Camp pre-sessions, but I heard they were terrific. I did, however, attend the pre-party at the Schlafly Tap Room, enjoyed an Oktoberfest and listened to Teddy Presberg and the Restoration Organ Trio tear it up for about and hour and a half. Those guys were excellent. It was the perfect way to end the day, and to start off the conference.

Day 1: Databases, Bootstraps, Lies and Oh! The Arch

Michael Stonebraker keynoted the event with his talk titled “In-Memory Databases – The Future is Now!” Michael talked about what he calls “NewSQL” (that is neither traditional SQL nor NoSQL) and his implementation of it. I’m a little suspicious because the whole thing is single-threaded, and in my mind, that processor had better be bangin’ to handle all of that work. To be fair, though, multi-threaded databases incur a ton of overhead dealing with concurrency, and by making the database itself single-threaded, a tremendous amount of complexity can be eliminated.

I remember not long ago when Twitter Bootstrap came out, and I made a mental note to check it out. Well, Howard Lewis Ship beat me to it and gave a very nice overview, complete with working examples. I’m not an active web developer, and am not up to date with all the latest frameworks (and there are many — it makes my head hurt, to be honest), but the promise of cross-platform and consistent look and feel coupled with ease of use make Bootstrap quite compelling.

Stuart Sierra gave a talk titled “Functional Design Patterns,” in which he identified a series of coding patterns much like the Gang of Four, but specific to functional programming. One pattern he introduced as the state/event pattern, which, from what I can tell, is the same thing as event sourcing. He introduced a number of other patterns that I probably would have appreciated more if I was more proficient in a functional language. Apparently, many of these patterns are “monadic” in nature.

(Everyone laughs here when someone says “monads.” Either everyone has a 10-year-old’s sense of humor because it rhymes with “gonads,” or there’s some kind of inside joke that I don’t know about.)

Gary Bernhardt blew our minds with his talk titled “A Whole New World,” wherein he developed a new console, complete with interactive visuals. Impressive, no? Indeed … until we realized that he built the whole thing in Keynote. Lame! His point wasn’t lost on me though. We should not settle for old, dusty tools. Sure, the console is tied to the kernel, but so what?! We should want better tools, and we should build them … just not in Keynote.

The Gateway Arch

I snuck out of the conference long enough to check out the Gateway Arch. It’s even more majestic in person!

Amanda Laucher and Paul Snively duked it out in their “Types vs. Tests: An Epic Battle” talk. Epic is kind of a strong word, but the talk was interesting. They worked on some code katas independently, and neither seemed to agree on the initial approach. E.g., do I write out all of my unit tests first, or define all of my types? They did seem to agree, however, that both types and tests have their places. As a C# developer, I’m quite comfortable and proficient with types. But, I’m really dragging my feet with TDD, and I was glad to hear that I’m not the only one who dreads the thought of writing tons of unit tests. Say what you want, but it’s downright dreadful.

Rich Hickey challenged my thinking with respect to databases with his talk, titled “The Database as a Value.” Relational databases historically have been a necessity in order to minimize storage space. Today, however, storage is cheap and ubiquitous, allowing developers to consider data persistence alternatives. Rich made the argument that developers commit code to version control systems without regard for space consumption, and such systems keep each revision forever. No relational database offers that, but we should want it. In fact, we should demand it! (Permalinks, anyone?) Not only is Rich demanding it, he’s building it.

Day 2: Neuroscience, Philosophy, Abstractions and Expressions

For the keynote, Jeff Hawkins gave us an education on the neocortex of the brain and how Numenta is using this information to build learning systems. The neocortex is a predictive modeling/memory system, not a computing system, and Numenta’s system(s) are built similarly. Artificial intelligence has a bright future, and Jeff envisions a future in which it’s used for continued information discovery, particularly in areas unsuitable for humans. (Think deep space travel.)

Matt Butcher proposed that all of computer science can be traced back to Plato, much like A. N. Whitehead suggested that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Matt theorized that Plato’s focus on being would likely place him in the OOP camp, and that Aristotle would be a champion of functional programming as he was far more interested in the becoming, the perpetual change of state. And, to wit, if you attempt to combine both philosophies, you end up with Scala. (Laughter ensued, but I’ve never written a line of Scala, so the joke was lost on me. I bet it was really funny though.)

I went on to attend three other talks, all of which were interesting:

In summary, the conference accomplished exactly what it set out to do. It attracted really smart people from various disciplines, covered a variety of topics, and blew people’s minds. Quality was high, all around. In fact, even the tunes were great! I can’t think of a single thing to really complain about, and that speaks volumes because complaining is something I’m incredibly skilled at. (OK, the hotel WiFi SUCKED, but that’s about it.)

For those of you who did not attend, all of the talks have been recorded and will eventually show up on InfoQ. Also, talk contents (slides, code, etc.) can be found here.