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27 Oct 2010

by Noel

Untyped HQ Number Two

We’ve moved! A few weeks ago I submitted by dissertation, which means I’m going to spend a lot more time at Untyped HQ in the future. This created a bit of a jam at our current office, so over the last weekend we shifted a few metres down the hall to a bigger room.

If you hang out in certain circles you’ll have recently spent some time eyeballing 37Signal’s new office and those of We don’t have the empty minimalism of 37Signals, or a blue thing with lots of pipes, and we forbid cheating pullups but it’s a pretty nice place none the less. See for yourself. If you like our style you can get the official Untyped desks in over 25 countries. Just remember, it’s birch, not beech!

Posted in Fun | Comments Off on Untyped HQ Number Two

22 Jul 2010

by Noel

Epistemology and A/B Testing

A/B testing is all the rage in certain web development circles. Naturally, when something becomes popular the criticism starts. I’ve read some unconvincing attacks on A/B testing recently, as well as some good ones, so I want to lay down my thoughts on what A/B testing is and what it isn’t.

The general method of A/B testing on the web is as follows:

  • Decide on a change to make to the site. This could be as small as the wording of a title or as large as the entire navigational structure of the site.
  • Decide what outcome you want to measure. Typical examples are purchases, time spent on the site, and number of repeat visits.
  • Randomly assign each visitor one of the two (or more) versions of the site.
  • Measure how the different versions stack up against the outcome of interest.

This is a fairly simple thing. Critics of A/B testing usually claim that it is only good for small changes. It cannot, they claim, be used for business-changing disruptive innovation. The critics are wrong. They are confusing the principles underlying A/B testing with the commons implementations of the idea.

How We Acquire Knowledge

There are basically three means by which we come to acquire knowledge:

  1. By appealing to authority.
  2. By constructing statements consistent with assumed first principles.
  3. By making observations on the effects of actions.

The third method has proven to be vastly superior when studying the natural world, and is the basis of the method known as science. If you are reading this then you are validating the efficacy of this method, as the computer you are using is the result of a few hundred years of scientific developments.

The primary mechanism of science is the experiment. An experiment involves performing some action in the world and measuring it’s effect. If different actions leads to different outcomes one typically does some statistical analysis on the result, to determine if one is justified in believing the differences represent a true difference or are just the result of chance.

A/B Is Science

A/B testing is science. A/B testing is about taking an action and measuring its effects. That is, doing an experiment. One can experiment with small things, like the colour of a button on a web site. One can also experiment with large things, like business models, new technology, and other disruptive changes.

The critics see the small experiments used to market A/B testing to internet businesses and think it is the totality of the method. They are right that companies usually don’t A/B test large changes. It is unusual to run two or more different business models, for example. That doesn’t mean these experiments aren’t done, but they are typically done at the level of the market rather than the individual company. Different companies, called competitors, experiment with a particular combination of strategy, model, and implementation, and the market measures their effect. Sometimes big companies will run these experiments internally. Google, for example, is currently experimenting with both Android and Chrome OS in more or less the same space. Complex experiments like this aren’t controllable nor are they repeatable, so the methods of social science are preferred over those of the hard sciences, but they still fall within the scientific paradigm.

A/B Testing Isn’t All That

I’ve said A/B testing is science, and science is great. However I do think the current implementation of A/B testing, as used by web companies, is flawed. The reason is we’re usually interested in decision making not hypothesis testing, and with decision making we want a different setup than is currently used. Exploring this is for another post.

Posted in Business, Front page | Comments Off on Epistemology and A/B Testing

20 Jul 2010

by Noel

Birmingham Events

Birmingham doesn’t have great visibility at the intersection of software development, design, and entrepreneurship in which Untyped operates, but in the last few months there has been a surge of events that suggest this is changing.

Here’s a list of regular events, some new and some established, that we’ve found of interest:

  • fizzPOP is a hackerspace that runs fortnightly meetings. The next meeting, which will be my first, is tomorrow!
  • Tech Wednesday is a networking group for computing professionals. It has only been running for a month. The next meeting also tomorrow, and it will also be my first.
  • The first meeting of StartupMill Birmingham was yesterday. I could only make the beginning of the meeting, but Dave tells me there was an interesting group of people.
  • Likemind is a nice relaxed networking event held in the Jewellry Quarter. There is a good mix of people there representing all sorts of nearby businesses.
  • Digital Playground attracts a tonne of web and graphic design people from Fazeley Studios and surrounds.

Posted in Business | Comments Off on Birmingham Events

18 Jul 2010

by Noel

Open source libraries now on GitHub

We are excited to announce that we’ve moved all of our open source code to Github!

If you want to use our libraries in your application, we recommend getting hold of them via PLaneT as usual. If you want to live on the edge or hack on things, however, you’ll find the libraries here and build instructions here.

We’re still working on the best way of organising and documenting everything. If you have any advice, please get in touch or leave us a note in the comments.

Posted in Code | Comments Off on Open source libraries now on GitHub

10 Jun 2010

by Noel

Selenium client for Racket

Acceptance testing is a must for any developer of complex web applications. Selenium is a suite of tools to help automate acceptance by recording user actions, turning them into code, and playing them back in a remote controlled web browser.

Now, thanks to a lazy Saturday afternoon and a rather nice bottle of ginger beer, the joys of Selenium are available to the Racketcommunity by way of our new Selenium PLT library. Check it out on our Github page and let us know how you get on!

Those of you familiar with our open source libraries may know aboutDelirium, our re-implementation of Selenium using the Racket HTTP Server. Delirium was a great project that made for an elegant demonstration of the power of continuations in web development.

You may fairly ask the question: why, if Delirium is so good, are we releasing bindings for Selenium? There are several answers to this. The main reason is time: maintaining compatibility across all the major browsers is a difficult process, and that’s time we could be devoting to our other pet projects. Second, we’re doing a lot of web development in other languages these days; for example, we’re currently working on a project using Scala and Lift. There are already bindings for Selenium in most of these languages, and it makes sense to use the same tools across the board.

Current Delirium users shouldn’t worry – we will continue to develop all of our libraries to maintain compatibility with new versions of Racket. Our plans internally are to switch to Selenium for new projects, and to keep using Delirium for our existing code. If the time does come to switch away from Delirium, you should find translation to our Selenium bindings to be quite straightforward.

Posted in Code, Racket, Web development | Comments Off on Selenium client for Racket

6 May 2010

by Noel

Covering the Election

Today is the closest and most interesting general election in the UK that I can remember. This blog isn’t the place to talk politics, but while reading the manifestos of the three major parties I was struck by their design, and particularly the design of their covers, and I’m going to share some thoughts today on this topic. I think it’s interesting to look at the message the each party is trying to convey with their design and in particular how they all, for me, got it wrong. In alphabetical order, here they are:

The Conservatives

Gold lettering on a blue cloth binding. I knew I’d seen this before but it took a while before I remembered where: my parent’s old textbooks, which I used to leaf through as a child, had this kind of binding beneath their dust jackets. I looked through all my and my wife’s textbooks and didn’t find any the same. Add in the stuffy “Invitation” and to me this says old. Very traditional, very establishment, and very much at odds with the image of David Cameron, with no tie and top button undone, presented in the Tory advertising.


This is not a subtle cover. The illustration benefits from the fact the UK is a small country and most places look more or the less the same, so the patchwork fields will look like “home” to almost everyone. I’m a bit surprised the couple looks so white; I’d expect Labour to embrace diversity a bit more. However the whole feel of the cover is quite retro. The style of illustration and the rural setting (the UK is very urbanised) both seem to looking backward to me. I like the alliteration in the text. That blazing hot sun disturbs me; it looks more like a nuke going off than the gentle British sun I’m used to.

Liberal Democrats

It’s hard to say much about this cover, as it doesn’t say much to me. The repetition of “fair” is effective, and this is continued inside. The colours are washed out. This cover doesn’t really inspire any emotion in me; it looks more like an annual report than a manifesto!

Of the three I like the Labour cover the most, but as you’ve seen none of them really worked for me. This isn’t too surprising; major political parties must paint with such a broad brush that they cannot really address any small demographic. Now enough about the manifestos; go out and vote!

Posted in Design, Fun | Comments Off on Covering the Election

20 Apr 2010

by Noel

Formalising Bonds with the Informal

There is an interesting move underway by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to more precisely define the meaning of certain asset backed securities (like the now infamous mortgage-backed securities that were central to the recent crash). The NY times has covered the story from a high level, but what of particular interest to me is the proposal to specify the meaning of the bonds in Python. This is a step is the right direction but Python is not the answer.

The core problem here is to give a clear and unambiguous meaning to a bond. This requires the language in which it is written is precisely defined. Python is not precisely defined. There is only a prose definition of the language, which is inadequate in the same way that the prose definitions of bonds are inadequate, and of course there are differences between various versions and implementation of Python. Since Python is not precisely defined the only meaning one can give to a program in Python is whatever the particular implementation one uses does with that program.

In contrast there are languages that are formally defined, suchStandard ML and Scheme. These would make a sound basis for the formal definition of bonds. In turns out that functional languages also make a good (meaning expressive and convenient) basis for the formal definition of bonds. There is a great paper on expressing contracts in Haskell and at least one company has implemented this idea in a commercial system (in O’Caml, I believe). So my advice to the SEC: use an appropriate subset of Scheme or Standard ML, or hire someone to create a formally defined DSL, but don’t use a language without a formal definition if precision is your goal.

Posted in Business, Code, General | Comments Off on Formalising Bonds with the Informal

12 Mar 2010

by Noel

Hacking Motivation

Like most people there are parts of my job I don’t enjoy. Writing quotes, for example, is not my favourite activity. Recently I’ve been thinking about a way to “hack” my motivation, to make these parts of my job more interesting and enjoyable. Here are my ideas.

Self-determination theory posits that motivation derives from autonomy, relatedness, and competency. The first two are easy to come by in a small business. I’m my own boss and what I do is critical to the success of the business, and hence to my continued mortgage payments. So it seems the later is the limiting factor. This matches my experience; I can happily program for hours (days? years?) and I consider my pretty damn good at it. Writing quotes is painful and it takes me a long time to finish one. So perhaps if I can gain competency I’ll enjoy writing quotes more and thus become more motivated to complete them.

How does one gain competency? Deliberate practice is how. It may take 10000 hours to become an expert but I don’t need to be an expert quote writer, just a better one than I am today. Luckily thelearning curve suggests that I can get to a good level of competency with relatively little effort. So this is my hack for improving motivation: pick something I do often that I’m bad at and practice it in a fun way. For quote writing that might mean trying to write a good quote for a preposterous imagined product. If you enjoy the ridiculous like I do you’d probably find that fun.

I’m not actually going to practice quote writing right now as I have other big projects occupying me, but I intend to try this technique out in the future. I’ll let you all know how this turns out for me. Finally, if you try my technique I’d love to hear how it works out for you.

Posted in Business | Comments Off on Hacking Motivation

2 Feb 2010

by Noel

Is the iPad the beginning of the end for Intel?

Much has been written about the iPad since its launch. I’m sympathetic to the concerns about the closed nature of the iPad, and I think the iBookStore (along with the Kindle) is going to have a big effect on the book market, but I want to focus on something I haven’t seen much discussed: the A4 chip powering the iPad.

What you need to know about the A4 is this: at its core is an ARMCortex-A9 MP CPU. ARM cores also power the iPhone and about every other smartphone out there. Intel just can’t compete in this market as their chips require too much power. This weakness is, paradoxically, a result of their greatest strength: the Intel instruction set. Even the most modern Intel chip still retains the ability to execute code for the ancient 8086. This ensures you can run just about any program ever written for an Intel machine on the latest CPU, giving Intel an enormous software base to leverage. However supporting this instruction set comes at a cost. The 8086 instruction set is not a good fit for modern CPU designs, and the instruction set has accreted decades of cruft to try and wedge modern features into it. To get acceptable performance all modern Intel chips have vast amounts of silicon devoted to instruction decoding; that is, the process of turning instructions into so-called micro-ops, which are what the CPU actually executes. All this silicon takes power, which is why ARM handily beats Intel on performance-per-Watt.

Now this wasn’t an issue for Intel even a few years ago. But we’re seeing three things that ought to make them worried. The first is the iPad, showing that little devices can grow bigger and perhaps move into the PC market, in much the same way PCs took over from the scientific workstations of Apollo, DEC, Sun and others. The second is the increasing concern for performance-per-Watt from people like Google and Amazon whose huge server farms power the major Internet services. The third is open source software, and particularly GCC’s support for just about every CPU on the market. This means the software can be easily recompiled for a new architecture. Suddenly Intel’s dominance doesn’t seem so assured.

So perhaps in a few years ARM will become the dominant architecture, rather than Intel. Apple have already shown that switching architecture (twice!) isn’t so painful. And as someone who has been writing an Intel assembler for fun I can’t say I see this as a bad thing.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Is the iPad the beginning of the end for Intel?

31 Jan 2010

by Noel

Kahupdate 2

We’ve just uploaded another weekly update to Kahu, including a few bug fixes and the following new features:

Automatic closure of tickets

We had a lot of requests for this feature from support teams. Tickets in the resolved state are now automatically closed after a week. An email is sent to the person who raised the ticket, just in case there is still a problem.

Better navigation on booking pages

Each of the booking pages gets five new navigation buttons to make it easier to move around. In left-to-right order these are previous week, previous daynext daynext week, and jump to today. The selected day is also highlighted in week views, making it easier to see where you’re looking.

Delete and deactivate people

Last week we added the ability to delete teams and resources; this week we’re adding the ability to delete people. To avoid confusion, we’ve made it so you can’t delete a person if they own any bookings, have raised any tickets, or have authored any ticket comments. Instead, we’ve added the option to deactivate a person’s account.

Inactive people cannot log in, and they don’t show up on thePeople page unless you are an administrator. However, they still appear on bookings, tickets and the like.

What are we currently working on? Well, it’s a biggie. We’re updating our in-house tools for doing mass-imports bookings, resources and people. This should make it far easier for schools to do bulk imports of data from Management Information Systems such asSIMS and Facility.

The tools should be available in the next week or so. In the meantime, as ever, please get in touch if you need help with your data.

Posted in Kahu | Comments Off on Kahupdate 2