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11 Nov 2008

by Noel

Recent changes in the PLT web server

Jay McCarthy, maintainer of the PLT web server, has started blogging about improvements he is making to the web server. Start readinghere and go back through the last six or so posts. It is great to see the web server getting more visibility.

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5 Nov 2008

by Noel

Tests as todos

Like most people I have a few projects on the go at once. To efficiently switch between them I must be able to quickly pick up where I left off. In my programming projects I’ve been using failing tests as reminders to myself. This fits in nicely with my programming workflow, and enables me to make progress before I’ve recalled all the details of the project I’m working on. Here’s how it works:

In my programming workflow I cycle between writing tests, writing code, and running tests (this is just test driven development). When I’m about to stop working on a project I write some failing tests, which act as a specification for what I should do next. At this point in time I’ve been working on the project for a while so I have recalled its structure and I’m in a good position to make this decision.

When I pick up a project after a break I enter straight into my normal workflow and run my tests. I inspect the failing tests and start implementing the functionality they specify. At this point in time I don’t even have to remember why I’m implementing this; the tests provide enough detail that I can just start coding. As I do so I invariably recall more details of the project. By the time I’ve finished the feature I’m ready to go at full speed.

This technique allows me to “hide” the time it takes to recall the project details; I still get useful work done in this period. It’s quite a simple idea and no doubt some of you are already using it, but if you haven’t tried it, give it a shot.

Posted in Code | Comments Off on Tests as todos

4 Nov 2008

by Noel

Siesta time

When I went travelling in Spain I had a siesta just about every day. There are very practical reasons for doing so: it is so damn hot in the middle of the day, and, despite being very close to the Prime Meridian, Spain is on +2GMT in summer so the evenings last forever. Another benefit of siestas: I felt great!

This little anecdote is designed to entice to view
this graphic from The Boston Globe. Within you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about napping. Now a lot of it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Everyone knows the mid-afternoon lull (at Untyped Midlands it tends to lead to a frenzy of piano playing or drumming, for reasons I don’t understand) but few of us heed the urge to sleep. Perhaps we should. Remember to plan your naps: either get a full cycle (1.5 hours) or stop your nap after about 45 minutes. If you wake in the middle of deep sleep you’ll feel terrible.

If you have problems getting to sleep, I recommend a cat as a snoozing companion. They’re always ready for a nap and purring is very relaxing. Furthermore, a good alarm cat will stop your afternoon nap extending too close to dinner time.

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24 Oct 2008

by Noel

The 4ip Fund

If you live in the West Midlands (I think we have a few readers here…) you should take a look at the 4iP fund. I hope to write more about this later.

Posted in Business | Comments Off on The 4ip Fund

27 Sep 2008

by Noel

Commercial use articles in the Journal of Functional Programming

Further evidence of the increasing commercial relevance of functional programming (and just as important, the desire of the academic community for said relevance) is the announcement that the Journal of Functional Programming is now accepting Commercial Use articles.

The software engineering (SE) community and the programming language theory (PLT) community have traditionally been quite separate. This has led to much duplication of work. For example, it is well known that patterns are language features, indicating that the two communities have essentially been solving the same problems from different angles. The SE field assumes the language is fixed, and so develops abstractions (i.e. patterns) that exist above the level of code. The PLT researcher changes the language to directly express the abstraction. The SE approach is pragmatic but inelegant. The promise of the PLT approach has been retaining elegance (with associated reduction in development and maintenance cost), but the cost of adopting a new language is often seen as too high. (Incidentally, solving this problem is why you want a language with macros. I.e. Scheme.)

That the JFP is looking to publish essentially SE articles is definitely a good thing. It will, however, be interesting to see how the community adapts to members with quite different aims and values to the typical PLT researcher. For example, the PLT researcher is very focused on formality, and in particular giving precise semantics to language constructs. This leads to a style that deals with concepts in a very abstract mathematical manner. While powerful this is certainly not the best presentation for a working programmer to learn from. Consider, for example, Comprehending monads, which aims to be an easy introduction to monads. Given that this paper was published in 1992, we can see its ineffectiveness as a tutorial by considering the zillions of monad tutorials that have been written since. The problem is the abstract style of presentation. While presenting in an abstract style allows you to generalise to many different situations, people work best going from the specific to the general. Better tutorials start with a concrete example, and abstract from there. The question for the PLT community is how they will accommodate the desire for less formality and abstraction from the working programmer when one of the key differentiating factors between SE and PLT is the use of formalisms. If the right balance can be found this will be a great thing for both researchers and practitioners.

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10 Sep 2008

by Noel

The Spectacular Scribular

Scribular is a website and iPhone app that takes the idea offolksonomy, adds in GPS data from the iPhone, and gives you access to user contributed notes about the place where you currently are. The best part about Scribular if, like me, you don’t have an iPhone, is that it is written in PLT Scheme. It uses the LeftParen framework and you know LeftParen has to be awesome because it in turn uses lots of libraries from Untyped! Woo! Congratulations to Rob on launching. It is great to see another entrepreneur using PLT Scheme in a commercial setting.

Did I really just write Folksonomy?

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9 Sep 2008

by Noel

Of Interest 09/09/2008

  • Vroom! Vroom! (read if you know some Haskell)
  • The user interface documentation for Chrome, Google’s browser, goes into some detail justifying the design choices, and so makes for interesting reading. The design claims to gain inspiration from the games WipEout and WipEout 2097.

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6 Sep 2008

by Noel


Codeswarm is a repository visualisation tool. It produces movies that show who is working on what throughout the lifetime of the repository. Although I find the movies quite pretty, to be honest I don’t get much useful information from them. Judge for yourself from movies of the PLT repository and the Untyped repository. Compare tothe Linux kernel for a more psychedelic experience.

Posted in Fun | Comments Off on Codeswarm

2 Sep 2008

by Noel

Google’s Chrome Browser

Google is releasing a browser, called Chrome and based on the WebKit engine (same engine as Safari). To introduce the browser Google has published a series of photographs of the Chrome developers at work, and got them to explain in their own words what went into the browser. This does a good job of showing that working at Google really is one sun-shine filled cartoon day after another, but good gracious does it make for tedious reading. Next time just give the technical details as a bunch of text, ok?

Anyway, here are my thoughts on Chrome:

  • First, it has to be said: WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER BROWSER! Working around bugs in existing browsers takes enough time as it is. Google would have to create a truly exceptional product to gain enough market share to make developing from Chrome worthwhile. The only hope for Chrome, at least in the short term, is that it is attractive enough to developers that they use it as their main browser, and so are motivated to make their web apps support it.
  • Perhaps Chrome is going to be Google’s development platform forAndroid, it’s mobile phone platform. As we’ve said before there are squillions of web developers and harnessing them is the easiest way to get developers for your platform. Offer extended APIs (e.g. saving data to the local machine) using this familiar technology and you might be onto a winner.
  • If Google’s follows the route suggested above I could see Chrome getting some use for developing client-side applications. In theory Firefox is a compelling environment for cross-platform development. In practice the horrors of XUL and friends mean you have to be slighlty insane to go down that route. If Chrome does a better job of enabling client-side development I can it gaining some traction.

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14 Aug 2008

by Noel

Of Interest 14/08/2008

  • Gorgeous pictures of Afghanistan, taken in the 1970s and 2000-2003.
  • I found this article on path finding in games interesting. I was amazed to see how broken path finding using way-points is, yet in my (quite limited) experience playing many of the games featured I can’t recall running into any problems. It really does show that bar for good enough is quite low, at least for the casual gamer. I was also surprised that the better technique, a navigation mesh, isn’t used more frequently. It is so simple.
  • How much would you pay for an Olympic medal? For the Australian sports program, a bronze costs $15 million and silver or gold cost a cool $40 million. The (very limited) data suggests medals scale linearly with investment.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Of Interest 14/08/2008